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Holy Spider ★★★★★



Director: Ali Abbasi

Cast: Zar Amir-Ebrahimi, Mehdi Bajestani, Arash Ashtiani, and Forouzan Jamshidnejad

Release Date: London Film Festival 2022

Ali Abbasi is one of this generation’s most exciting global filmmakers. His films combine various perspectives, cultures, and an objective lens that reflects his unique worldview as a citizen of two different nations in two different parts of the world. Border was a melancholic, ultimately tragic film that combined fairy tale elements, themes of isolation and otherness, and a message on the flexibility of morality to create a unique piece of work. Holy Spider could not be a more different project for Abbasi, but he still retains the flurry of energy and ideas that translates as cinematic ferocity that defines his projects. Nuanced, devastating, and delicate in its dual perspectives, Holy Spider is another terrific achievement for Abbasi, his tactile filmmaking creating a portrait of human purpose and the victims of those who befall that great lie.

Set in the Iranian holy city of Mashhad in 2001, Holy Spider follows Saeed, a serial killer murdering female sex workers under the guise of religious cleansing, and Rahimi, an investigative journalist intent on finding the serial killer in the city’s lower depths. This dual perspective focuses on Saeed’s actions and Rahimi’s attempts to stop them, culminating in shocking and devastating ways for both.

Holy Spider is an absolute beast of a film. Its approach to these dual perspectives creates an oscillation between emotions. Still, the film remains in a constant state of unease and religious martyrdom that grounds it in ideas supporting its two central characters. Saeed is represented as a man whose relationship and servitude can only quantify his disappointment with life to his God, a distorted worldview that Abbasi never vindicates or condemns but instead remains an objective look at his search for meaning within martyrdom.

What Abbasi does denounce is how this worldview is an excuse for his serial killing. In these scenes, Saeed is killing his victims to be harrowing, yet tastefully never subjective from Saeed’s point of view. In other words, we view the pragmatism of his actions through the lens of Rahimi, a female journalist whose combination of empathy with the victims and dedication to distilling objective truth from religious truth indicts Saeed from the moment Abbasi introduces him. Yet, he retains the delicate balance of us seeing through Saeed’s eyes and yet viewing his actions through the perspective of another, which is perfectly accentuated and articulated by the cross-cutting between these two perspectives. This is, in part, what makes Holy Spider such an achievement; the film plays with what horrifies us about the world we live in while looking at such horror through eyes unclouded by hate yet perverted by male religious entitlement.

Holy Spider serving as his first film, Baiestani is one of this year’s breakout performances, leaving a lasting impression as Saeed, giving filmgoers a more terrifying rendition of a serial killer than any other in years. Amir-Ebrahimi is a force of nature, carrying the burden of truth while simultaneously fighting a system designed to lock her out and reward, to some degree, Saeed’s actions with a performance that turns doubt, fear, and suppression into empowerment, strength, and an unnerving verve for not just moral justice, but for the retainment and acceptance of the truth. The sadness behind her acceptance of the consequences of her investigation makes for some of the year’s most quietly moving and heartbreaking moments, making her performance one of the best of the year. On the other side, Baiestani is downright frightening in his persistent dedication and eerie in his commitment to his family and the way he entangles them in his religious quest.

Holy Spider expertly explores not just the system at play but the pervading male mentality of entitlement that religious extremism rewards, exhibiting how martyrdom is a generational, societal sickness masquerading as moral divinity. What makes the film so remarkable is how in-depth it chooses to explore its themes, characters, and setting while retaining a balance between what is objective and subjective through its dual perspectives. Abbasi’s direction is subtle yet compounds every scene with a sense of honesty, one getting the feeling that Abbasi’s outside perception of his nation, Iran, lends an evenhandedness to the film and its balance of anger, sympathy, and blood-curdling fear. The ending is utterly chilling and has an emotional impact that most films never achieve, instigating a reaction of horrified tears at the implications and conclusions Abbasi is drawing. An exercise in understanding societal conditions, religious autonomy, and the power of faith in people as much as in any religious text or in God, Holy Spider is a provocative, challenging, and beautiful film whose staying power is undeniably skin-crawling.  

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