Michael Hayward's Blog

VIFF 2022: "Holy Spider"

Michael Hayward

Holy Spider is an extremely dark film based on actual events: a serial killer who was active in the years 2000 to 2001 in the holy city of Mashhad, Iran, home to the Imam Reza shrine. The identity of the killer is not concealed from the film’s audience: we learn early on that a construction worker named Saeed Hanaei has been targeting the city's female sex workers. Holy Spider, directed by Iranian director Ali Abbasi, stars Zar Amir Ebrahimi as Rahimi, an investigative journalist who is attempting to bring the killer to justice, in the face of what seems like indifference, or perhaps complicity, on the part of the police (Ebrahimi won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her role).

Abbasi’s film in indebted to a 2002 documentary film covering the same events, And Along Came a Spider, directed by Maziar Bahari, which includes an interview with the killer, as well as interviews with the killer’s son, and with family of some of the victims.

Much of the action in Holy Spider takes place at night, in the less savoury parts of the city, and tensions rise dramatically as Rahimi begins to make progress in her investigation, eventually deciding to offer herself up as a potential target.

It will not take away from the film’s power to reveal that Hanaei is eventually captured and brought to trial, after claiming 16 victims. During his trial Hanaei readily admits to the killings, but takes the position that he is blameless, since he did so in an effort to rid the city of moral corruption. Hanaei has considerable support, and much of the tension in the latter part of the film comes from our uncertainty as to whether he will be found guilty and punished for his crimes.

Due perhaps to the current political climate in Iran, and to the film’s suggestion that police in Mashhad may have tacitly approved of Hanaei’s efforts to “clean up the city,” Abbasi chose to film Holy Spider in Jordan, since it is unlikely that he would have received official permission to film in Mashhad itself.

The content warning for Holy Spider is definitely worth heeding: “Graphic Violence, Sexual Violence.” This is a very difficult film to watch.

There are two in-theatre screenings of Holy Spider as part of VIFF 2022, on Friday, October 7 at the Playhouse, and on Sunday, October 9 at SFU Woodwards. See here for more information on the film. You can view a trailer for Holy Spider here.



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