"Free Iran, stop the executions" – it is closely packed with political posters that shadow the cinema screen. The mood on holy spiders pre-premiere at the Film fra Sør festival trembles. The appeal of the Iranian female supporting actress Forouzan Jamshidnejad (Fatima in the film) hits like a punch. The actress' account of her and the others involved receiving death threats and hate mail from the Iranian regime after the Cannes screening is shocking but not surprising. The story of the mass murderer Saeed Hanaei is inflamed. In 2000 and 2001, the construction worker, popularly known as the 'Spider Killer', killed 16 prostitutes in the holy city of Mashhad. The new film not only tells of the authorities deliberately looking the other way, but of something far worse.
Director Ali Abbasi knew of these grotesque abuses before he came to Sweden from Tehran at the age of 21. After five years of studying architecture, he moved on to film studies in Copenhagen. The story of the Holy Spider has had time to mature. Abbasi allows the film to be well planted in both his home country's and Nordic culture. holy spider structurally similar to the cult film Taxi Driver (1976). In both Scorsese's and Abbasi's films, the main character is an unstable war veteran who drives around and around in the night, called by 'higher powers' to purge the guilty. Like Robert De Niro, Mehdi Bajestani stages an ambivalent attraction towards the young prostitutes.
Abbasi insists here on a realistic and raw portrayal. The film crew ended up in Amman, Jordan to get permits to complete the shoot.
A unique visual sensibility
It is liberating to see a political film that dares to choose the thriller genre to exercise sharp social criticism. At the same time, the thriller offers a unique visual sensibility. Cinematography creates a tactile closeness where the characterization of the female victims is rather simple. Camera and light allow us to dwell on details such as red-flamed skin and chapped lips with make-up smeared all over. Heroin addiction and distress have clearly set in on the orphaned faces. The movie makes us care. It hurts when the gaudy headdresses cause the girls to attract attention in brown-dirty, dusty neighborhoods – and we know all too well that the killer circles inexorably closer to his prey.
Abbasi conveys a lot with the help of simple moves: Desperate, as if to fill a bottomless need, the poor prostitute bites the apple offered by the killer. The apple falls as the war veteran assaults her, and it is left half-eaten with red lipstick. The metaphor turns into something more. The killer's child finds the apple, and the father resolutely throws it out the window. Immediately the child will do the same. The theme of the sins of the fathers being passed on to children is thought-provoking and disturbing.
The journalist Rahimi
holy spider can be read as a direct comment on the ongoing women's revolution in Iran. The killing of Masha Amini by the morality police on 13 September sparked mass riots. She was arrested because some hair was visible under her hijab. The Norwegian-Iranian actor Jamshidnejad bravely chooses to let her long hair flow freely as she fronts the thriller on social media. holy spider takes you behind the scenes and gives an insight into how Iranian society is permeated by the oppression of women.
holy spider can be read as a direct comment on the ongoing women's revolution in Iran.
Using the daring and vulnerability of the fictional main character, the female journalist Rahimi (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi), the film manages to balance this darkness. Through Rahimi, who stands tall regardless of whether she is denied the booked hotel room or sexually harassed by the local police investigator. She becomes our guide in a closed environment, but is also representative of where the women's revolution gets its glow and strength from. Again, Abbassi goes close to the face, taking us into the heroines' pain and powerlessness – but also shows the growing stubbornness. The film follows Rahimi in her hunt for the killer whom the police let go free. Her resentment of the ongoing conspiracy becomes ours. Rahimi becomes so obsessed with the injustice that she ends up using herself as bait to stop the killer who both she and we know will stop at nothing.
An everyday person
The killer is portrayed as an everyday person, a family-loving man who plays with his children and makes passionate love with his wife. He is not the genius serial killer we are used to seeing. He is allowed to continue undisturbed in removing the unfortunates he calls corrupt women. The thriller is poignant, not because of one man's bestiality, but in conveying the merciless contempt that pervades the entire Iranian society when it comes to these outcasts. When the killer is caught, he is hailed as a hero – and he and his family receive gifts wherever they go.
Moral politet probably still has support in many sections of the population in Iran. Little has changed in the last 20 years – when it comes to control and reprisals against women. I can't help but think about the recently issued death sentences for arrested female protesters. I also think of the Iranian director Ali Parandian's prayer in Oslo to support the protests by signing the petition.