Aposter image for the film depicting one of the killer’s victims

I booked this film at the Leeds International Film Festival as an Iranian drama but didn’t read the blurb in any detail. As soon as the credits rolled I realised it was a narrative set in Iran but shot outside the country (in Jordan) as a familiar co-production between four countries, each of which has received Iranian asylum seekers. Writer-director Ali Abbasi was born in Tehran in 1981 but studied architecture in Sweden and then film in Copenhagen where he now lives. This is his third feature and all three have been prizewinners at festivals. Readers may remember his second, the film Border (2018), a Swedish fantasy film that was highly celebrated. Holy Spider was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2022, but won the best actress prize for Zar Amir Ebrahimi who is herself an Iranian who now has French citizenship.

Saeed the killer known as the Spider (Mehdi Bajestani)

This film is based on/inspired by the real case of the serial killer, Saeed Hanae who murdered 16 women during 2000-2001, all of whom he took to be sex workers responsible for morality crimes. He believed himself to be doing God’s work. The case prompted a documentary in 2002 and a first fictionalised feature in 2020, a film made in Iran that waited for permission from the Iranian authorities. Holy Spider was, not surprisingly, attacked when it was shown at Cannes. One Iranian critic worryingly referred to it as another Satanic Verses.

Abbasi’s film (co-written with Afshin Kamran Bahrami) begins with a woman travelling to the holy city of Mashhad, Iran’s second city which receives as many as 20 million visitors/pilgrims each year wanting to visit the Imam Reza shrine, which has been described as “the heart of Shia Iran”. The woman has difficulty checking into her hotel as women travelling alone in Iran attract suspicion. She eventually produces identification as a journalist. Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi) is clearly a woman capable of standing her ground and the hotel manager completes the booking. Later we will realise that, though she is indeed a journalist, Rahimi has her own back story that forms an important part of the narrative. For now we will simply follow her attempts to pursue the story of the so-called ‘Spider Killer’ who appears to have killed several women without the police having much idea about who he is or what is motivating the murders. Abbasi presents Rahimi’s investigation in parallel with the fate of Saeed’s next victims. Eventually we will be introduced to Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani) as a respected family man and construction worker. We also get a sense of his place in a group of veterans who fought in the war with Iraq in the 1980s. Crucially, Abbasi presents two of the victims as women who too have families but who must offer themselves as prostitutes to get enough money to feed themselves and their families. In the Press Notes Abbasi argues that street prostitution is rife in Mashhad and tolerated almost as if it is part of the ‘hospitality offer’ in the city.

Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi)

Rahimi soon discovers the difficulties inherent in investigating the story but she does find a male journalist in the city prepared to help her and a police officer in charge of the case at least willing to speak to her initially. Rahimi is a fictional figure. Abbasi tells us that there was a female journalist in Mashhad who reported on the case but Rahimi is not based on her. The narrative develops in several ways and at this point it’s worth mentioning Abbasi’s statements about his film which do seem to me to be potentially contradictory and confusing. He tells us that he was not interested in making a film about a serial killer as such or a film critical of the Iranian government or indeed a ‘message film’ about social issues in Iran. On the other hand he is interested in film noir and he wanted to make a ‘Persian noir‘. Saeed is not a conventional serial killer in a Hollywood film. Instead:

This story is not about the mystery of being a serial killer — it’s about the banality of Saeed’s life, how ordinary and unsophisticated he was.

What happened when Saeed was eventually captured is that he became a hero for many in the community who believed he was indeed doing God’s work. But once he entered the Iranian judicial system things got complicated. Abbasi argues that by introducing Rahimi and telling both stories he was taking some of the limelight off Saeed in revealing aspects of Rahimi’s story. The confusion arises because of Abbasi’s presentation of the murders. He wants to give a form of realist presentation of Iran – he says serial killers are not unknown elsewhere in the country and he thinks a Persian noir makes sense. However his realist approach means that some images of the murders in the film are very graphic, more so than audiences might be expecting. The last part of the narrative does appear to make comments about the hypocrisy of the Iranian judicial system and Rahimi’s story does inevitably work to expose misogyny in Iran. He does in fact seem to be making a film which to some extent does do the things that he says he set not to do. I’m not criticising him for this and his attempts to tell a story using a realist aesthetic is something I applaud. In other statements he seems to be saying that what is happening in Iran is also happening elsewhere and we should be aware of this.

Rahimi and the journalist who helps her (with the briefcase) wait during a recess in the judicial proceedings with the prosecutor and the cleric sitting in judgement

The two central characters are played by fine actors who deliver on every level and this was a demanding production. Mehdi Bajestani as Saeed is a well-known Iranian actor who took on the role at short notice when another actor dropped out. Abbasi says he was a perfect fit for the role, coming from Mashhad himself and able to speak in the local dialect. He had to ‘humanise’ a very distasteful person and had to break taboos in Iranian cinema which are perhaps not understood in the West. “It’s the equivalent of a Hollywood star playing a paedophile who commits paedophiliac acts in the movie.” Zar Amir Ebrahimi found herself in a not dissimilar position. She was originally on the production side and also then took over the role. She became a French citizen in 2017 and her fate was already sealed in Iran. She had been a popular actor in TV drama until a private intimate recording of her and her partner was stolen and circulated creating a scandal which caused her to leave the country. She therefore knew something about how her character and other women in the film felt.

Abbasi did try to make the film in Iran and he was prepared to submit his script, but permission was not granted or, as he says, it was simply held up without a decision until he was forced to consider moving it to Turkey, but then Iranian pressure forced the Turkish government to refuse permission. He then moved the production to Jordan where it was shot in just 35 days in Amman. He has argued that Amman is not a very distinctive city but with a few changes to signage (and, I’m guessing, a couple of CGI townscapes?) it resembles Mashhad pretty well. I think he is being a little rude about Amman (which includes the amphitheatre of the original Philadelphia) and ironically American producers have used Jordan for a host of productions including the independent feature Rosewater (US 2014), an Iranian narrative shot in Amman.

Ali Abbasi is undoubtedly an important filmmaker and none of my comments here are meant to imply that this is not an intelligent and well-made film. It’s riveting to watch and it will be distributed by MUBI in the UK and some other territories theatrically and presumably later via streaming. Utopia has it for US theatrical and it has already opened in France and Denmark with Sweden and Germany to follow in early 2023. Don’t miss it if you get the opportunity to see it in a cinema. I should also mention the music by Danish composer Martin Dirkov and cinematography by Nadim Carlsen (in 2.35:1), one of Abbasi’s fellow students at the National Film School of Denmark. Here’s the Cannes trailer which presents the film very well: