Holy Spider (Ankaboote Moghaddas) - Spoiler Free Movie Review
This Iranian crime thriller is effective in its premise! Partially based on the real “Spider Killings”, Abbasi captures the ongoing misogyny of a country's society.
Original Title: عنکبوت مقدس
Genre: Crime / Drama / Thriller
Director: Ali Abbasi
Cast: Mehdi Bajestani, Zar Amir-Ebrahimi, Arash Ashtiani, Forouzan Jamshidnejad, Mesbah Taleb, Sina Parvaneh, Sata Fazilat & Alice Rahimi.
Run Time: 119 min.
US Release: 28 October 2022 (limited)
UK Release: N/A
Iran Release: N/A
German Release: 12 January 2023
I had no plan to see this movie, it actually was never on my radar. I was trying to find a showing for the French film La Nuit du 12 but quickly figured out that it did not play in Munich. Walking through the streets a few days ago, a small theatre caught my attention, which displayed the title for this Iranian feature and I decided to google it. I immediately got hooked on the premise, bought a ticket and was relieved to see that it was showing in Farsi, with subtitles. So let's talk about Holy Spider, a special kind of crime thriller!
A female journalist delves into the dark underbelly of Iran’s holy city of Mashhad, as she investigates a string of serial killings of prostitutes, by the so-called “Spider Killer”, who believes he is doing the work of god, cleansing the streets of sinners.
Ali Abbasi, who directed this crime thriller based on the real-life murders of Saeed Hanaei, dubbed by the media the “Spider Killer” due to luring his victims into a deadly trap, also co-wrote the script. The director, who was a student in Tehran at the time the murders took place, was baffled by the conservative response of the public and the police, who practically elevated Hanaei as a public hero. He immediately became interested in creating a story, depicting the mind of a murderer, as well as that of a hypocritical society.
While early drafts of the script were very factual at first, Abbasi did not want his feature to focus solely on another serial killer. Instead, he opted to address the root of the problem, which he saw in the misogynistic culture of Iran’s society. The further he investigated the case, the more he was motivated to deviate to a fictional recount of what happened. How much Hanaei’s family was involved in that decision is unclear, though reports prove that they did convince the director to create a fabricated narrative.
The end result is an interesting portrait of a complex society, with questionable values being passed on through generations, hypocritical in many ways. The plot is split equally, between the point of view of Rahimi, the reporter that is investigating the crimes, who needs to deal with a lot of hate-speech towards women, as well as questioning every move when interacting with men. Then there is Saeed’s life, who is painted as a split individual. On one hand, he is shown in a sympathetic light, as a father and husband. Then there are the brutal killings of women, where he resembles to be more of a monster.
Conversations are direct, uncomfortable in tone, as double standards are unveiled plus shocking in nature. Religion is used to hide behind a male, sexist mindset.
Zar Amir-Ebrahimi plays Arezoo Rahimi, a fictional reporter who is based on a female journalist, covering the trials and writing a piece on Hanaei’s execution, inspiring the director to create the character. Marked as being an easy woman, due to an unwanted sexual advancement by her former boss, she needs to carefully manoeuvre her way through a world dominated by men, trying at the same time to uncover injustice by reporting on it. Ebrahimi managed to convey those feelings effectively, giving a brilliant performance.
Mehdi Bajestani gives an equally impressive portrayal of the serial killer Saeed Hanaei. Bajestani manages to evoke sympathy for the character, even though audiences know that the man’s sinister motives are unforgivable. It is clear from Bajestani’s performance that the production was trying to showcase the killer suffering not only from PTSD, being a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, but also feeling aroused by his murder sprees.
The camera is very reminiscent of Fincher’s crime-dramas, by depicting the brutal reality of murder. It also manages to visually depict the private life of both characters well enough, just like creating a bipolar atmosphere of the city of Mashhad itself, changing tone between day plus night. The use of shadows at night time is implemented effectively. Eerie close-ups and beautiful panoramic shots are being used round up the gorgeous cinematography.
Filming took place in Jordan, as attempts to shoot in Iran were thwarted by the government. This forced Abbasi to recreate the holy city creatively, depicted masterfully in his flick. Especially the nighttime sequences, with the bright lights illuminating the skies from the square, emit a haunting atmosphere, while at the same time being gorgeous to look at. Wardrobe plus makeup do suit the country's culture.
The soundtrack, created by Danish movie composer Martin Dirkov, contains sinister thriller tunes, paired with western Asian melodies. It is a score that goes under one's skin.
Verdict: Ali Abbasi’s newest picture, has been twenty years in the making. The director/writer was fascinated by the “Spider Killings” and the response from the public, who praised Saeed Hanaei as a local hero, cleansing the streets of Mashhad, by doing god’s work. Abbasi decided to create a fictional account of how Hanaei was captured, integrating a fictitious female journalist into the middle of the plot, to evolve the story into more than a simple crime flick, by criticising Iran’s double standard culture and society. Using solid editing, paired with Holywood-like cinematographic, the director explores how religion is used as a shield against chauvinistic actions. Containing amazing portrayals by Amir Ebrahimi, and Mehdi Bajestani as the Spider Killer, Holy Spider is an important, powerful crime thriller, deserving of an 8.0 out of 10!
Holy Spider was nominated for the Palm d’Or at Cannes & is definitely worth watching! If you haven’t seen it yet, give it a try. Thank you as always for reading!