Ali Abbasi is mainly known for his second film, Border (Gräns 2018), co-written by Isabella Eklöf. In this year’s Cannes competition, he presented Holy Spider, a serial killer thriller set in Iran. Female journalist Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi) travels to the holy city of Mashhad to investigate a serial killer targeting prostitutes. As she draws closer to exposing his crimes, the opportunity for justice grows harder to attain when the murderer is embraced by many as a hero. Based on the true story of the “Spider Killer” Saeed Hanaei, who saw himself on a mission from God as he killed 16 women between 2000 and 2001. A documentary about the case, And Along Came a Spider, is available on Vimeo.
The director was born in Iran but went to Stockholm to study in 2001. Initially, the Hanaei case didn’t resonate with him since serial killers were not so uncommon in Iran. His interest in the case started when some people began referring to the killer as a hero who performed his acts out of religious duty. Abbasi claims that his intention was not to make a serial killer movie but to depict a serial killer society. Attempts to shoot the film in Iran failed, and eventually, Amman, Jordan, became the substitute for Mashhad. A fact that allowed for a portrayal of women that acknowledged their bodies. Something that wouldn’t have been possible had the film been shot in Iran
The Holy Spider and its web
The identity of the killer is evident early on in the film. This is not a whodunit. The question is what it is instead. For a movie that aspires to be different, many ingredients seem to be derived from Nordic crime stories. Some people I talked to were upset by the relentless violence, which is an allegation that should be charged toward the killer rather than the filmmaker. The title refers to how Hanaei was described in the news at the time and that he lured the victims into his web. The director sees another layer of meaning in the expression since he felt that the shrine in the centre of Mashhad looked like a web in itself.
The main character, Rahimi, is mainly an invention, even though there was a female journalist who reported on the crimes at the time. It’s only one of several poetic licenses that Abbasi grants himself. Or maybe they should be called prosaic rather than poetic? Even though Holy Spider is way more cinematic than the dreaded Boy From Heaven, it’s really little more than an ordinary thriller, albeit set in an unusual environment. It is never less than competent, with many of the collaborators from Border appearing here once again, like the cinematographer Nadim Carlsen and the composer Martin Dirkov (who also scored Eklöf’s Holiday). Still, the final outcome is little more than a mundane serial killer film.
There used to be a thriller festival in Cognac that literally dried up when the company behind the drink withdrew its support. If that is a reason for the Cannes Film Festival to resume those duties is questionable, but far too many films in the competition this year were genre films that might as well have been enjoyed/endured on cable television or any random streaming service. Holy Spider was not the worst but utterly run-of-the-mill in many ways. It was still rewarded on award night with the prize for the best actress. Zar Amir Ebrahimi was originally the casting director but stepped into the leading role at the last second. She is one of the redeeming factors of the film.
The theme of Abbasi’s film is not limited to Iran. Even a country like Sweden has encountered numerous deaths of women that turned out to be “honorary murders”, sometimes carried out by the members of the victim’s own family to keep the “honour” intact. These crimes remained invisible for far too long, often for political reasons, but are now coming into the general consciousness as the horrendous, misogynistic crimes that they are. They are, however, still largely absent in the world of fiction.