“Holy Spider”. Virtuosity and sensationalism

28 October, 2022

Born in 1981 in Iran, but holding a master’s degree in architecture from Sweden and then a degree in filmmaking from Denmark, where he has since settled, Ali Abbasi is a filmmaker with a spectacular career. After several short films, he made his directorial debut with Shelley (2016), a drama with horror elements that had its world premiere in the Panorama section of the Berlinale (and whose cast included Romanian actress Cosmina Stratan). With his second feature, Border (2018), an unlikely and inventive mix of genres – fantasy, thriller, romance, and socio-political drama – about otherness, Ali Abbasi graduated into Cannes, where he won the Un Certain Regard prize. And with Holy Spider (2022), his latest feature, the filmmaker was promoted to the big league – the Cannes Official Competition, where actress Zar Amir-Ebrahimi walked away with the Best Female Actor Award.

While his previous subjects were set in the Scandinavian North, this time, Ali Abbasi is dealing with a story from his home country, which is inspired by a true story: in 2001, while the World Trade Center bombings were taking place in the US, in the holy city of Mashhad, an important religious center in Iran, a serial killer (apparently with the protection of the police) murders several prostitutes, while claiming to be on a mission from Allah. The truth is that, due to censorship, Iranian films cannot deal with themes such as prostitution, crime, and religious fanaticism, and they can certainly not represent either women or men in the manner of Ali Abbasi. But although the cast is made up of Iranian actors (Mehdi Bajestan, who plays the murderer, is a theatre actor from Iran, and Zar Amir-Ebrahimi, who plays the journalist investigating the murders, is an Iranian actress who has been living in exile in France for several years), and the narrative is supposed to take place in Mashhad, the shooting actually took place in Jordan. So the film does not have Iran among its co-producing countries.

Ali Abbasi said he applied for a permit to film in Iran, but was not allowed to do so, so he had to adapt. Middle Eastern audiences probably feel the differences, but they are hard for Western viewers to spot. In any case, although much of the narrative thread takes place outside, on the streets where the “killer spider” picks his victims, Ali Abbasi seems primarily interested in making a thriller with political and metaphorical overtones about the moral corruption of a society and, in extremis, of humanity itself, in keeping with the tradition of the genre. It’s only that the paradigm is changed: the aim is not to identify the murderer, who, along with the journalist, becomes the protagonist from the very start (and we see him both while he commits the murders and in the intimacy of his family – he is a husband and father of two children), but rather the suspense designed to prepare the meeting between the two.

Ali Abbasi proves himself as an exciting stylist in formal terms, from the unexpected camera angles and the fast-paced way the camera follows the characters closely, often stopping on their faces with expressionistic features, to the quick, grungy, industrial music the soundtrack is filled with. The film is an eye-stealing spectacle, reminiscent of the American thrillers of yesterday. The criticisms that can be leveled at it, however, concern the fascination it seems to show for the killer and his murders ( the man’s “style” is to strangle his victims with the veil that they are required to wear). The proof is that these scenes are infused with a dark comedy that arises from the killer’s mental lability (caught between sexual urges and religious zeal, between clumsiness and sadism), which makes the deeds more easily digestible.      

As a result, the film’s vigilante tone (there is an evident desire to denounce the hypocrisy and moral decay of a supposedly faithful Muslim society especially since a self-serving indifference on the part of the authorities is also suggested) is undermined by this sensationalism that gives the impression that Ali Abbasi himself is adopting a slightly voyeuristic perspective.

Journalist and film critic. Curator for some film festivals in Romania. At "Films in Frame" publishes interviews with both young and established filmmakers.