Skip to main content
A Magazine for Sheffield

Holy Spider: Exposing contradictions within Iran’s holiest city

Amidst ongoing global protests, Ali Abbasi’s graphic crime thriller is a reminder of the long-standing struggle for justice and women’s rights in Iran.

Zar Amir Ebrahimi In a scene from HOLY SPIDER courtey of Profile Pictures and One Two Films 2 2

Zar Amir Ebrahimi as Arezoo Rahimi in Holy Spider.

Courtesy of Profile Pictures and One Two Films

In a series of sickening twists and turns, Iranian filmmaker Ali Abbasi keeps viewers on the edge as he offers a graphic glimpse into the dark underbelly of Iran’s ‘holiest’ city, Mashhad.

Based on a true story, Holy Spider follows a fictional female journalist, Arezoo Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi), aiming to crack the real-life case of the serial Spider Killer, Saeed Hanaei (Mehdi Bajestani). Specifically targeting local sex workers in Mashhad, the plot reveals how Hanaei killed 16 women from 2000 to 2001 to ‘cleanse’ the city of moral corruption.

Displaying economic imbalances and social disparities with a sharp focus on gender inequality, Abbasi uses the horrifying contrasts within the Spider Killer’s world to illustrate Iran’s continuous struggle for freedom.

Striking images dominate Holy Spider. Between the bruised body, carefully applied red lipstick, black eyeliner, a strategically placed headscarf, an ill-fated motorcycle and a sacred maroon ring, we become acquainted with the seediness of Mashhad. Each close-up brings us nearer to the two worlds at play. Hanaei is simultaneously the loving father and devoted husband whilst assuming the role of the self-righteous citizen, motivated by a violent crusade to rid the city of misconduct in the name of God.

Abbasi ensures that any familial moments of light-heartedness are short-lived, as last night’s murder still lingers in the air and short tempers flare. Nothing in the film takes our attention away from the culture of misogyny inherent in Iranian society. Once there is mention of the morality police, critique of the regime threads through each pivotal scene.

One dialogue between Hanaei and a veteran friend tells us how the futility of the Iran-Iraq War birthed a generation of angry, hopeless men. Those who died were martyrs and those who survived unscathed were worthless.

Abbasi’s cinematography hauntingly focuses in on multiple ‘final’ moments in the Spider Killer’s story, yet there's never any real closure. There is no real justice for the women and their families, no justice for those manipulated into believing violence is the answer, and no justice for those living under a warped theocracy. As the film concludes, any semblance of justice is solely for the political gain of hardline leaders, so even a win remains a loss.

Relevant now more than ever, Holy Spider depicts the complex contradictions buried in Iran’s moral code and governance. Portraying a societal insincerity towards women and a disregard for their liberties, Ali Abbasi has conducted an important social commentary using a real story not many people outside of Iran will be aware of. Bringing this to the international screen, with all the risks and dangers that entails, he reminds us of the paradoxical and sanctimonious nature of those clinging to their rule in an attempt to sustain it forever.

by Sahar Ghadirian (she/her)
Filed under: 

More Film

Flaming Assassin is catching fire on the festival circuit

Filmed in Sheffield, the crime thriller by filmmaker, dancer and martial artist Nathan Geering has been picking up awards. Nathan told us more about kung fu, ‘fire breaking’ and being invited to train with Jackie Chan’s stunt team.

More Film