Zar Amir-Ebrahimi as Arezoo Rahimi in Holy Spider on Netflix

Holy Spider, an Iranian film on Netflix, is based on the true story of Saeed Hanaei (Mehdi Bajestani), an ex-militia man who systematically killed 16 prostitutes over the course of 1 year in the holy city of Mashhad. The film was made by Ali Abbasi, who was a student in Tehran at the time of the murders, and was baffled by the police’s inability to find the killer. In the film, fictional female journalist Arezoo Rahimi (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi) comes to Mashhad from Tehran to cover the story. When she arrives, she is exasperated, but not surprised, to learn that the police have not yet caught Saeed; in fact, they are barely trying. The film also follows the unrepenting Saeed, who is a devout Muslim, and a devoted husband and father, but is tormented by his own failure to become a martyr in the Iran-Iraq war in the 80’s. When he is caught, Saeed achieves local hero status from the conservative religious crowd, who see him as “cleansing” the city of “corrupt women”. As with Delhi Crime, Holy Spider uses an actual case to expose the state of women’s rights in 2001 Iran.

The Characters

Arezoo Rahimi is a forthright, tenacious, modern woman who is jaded from years of hypocritical behavior from male superiors, not to mention the patriarchal system ruling Iran. She immediately chafes the local police chief when she confronts him about why they have no clues in these killings. She makes a friend, however, in local crime reporter Sharifi (Arash Ashtiani), who admits that the killer has been calling him after each murder to let him know where the body is. Rahimi is flummoxed. “He should be caught by now. He’s just a man.” Saeed, who earns the nickname “The Spider Killer,” is a restless guy who feels like he has not met his potential. Whenever his wife takes the kids to visit her mother, Saeed sets off on his moped, finds a prostitute, lures her with money, and then strangles her, immediately wrapping and disposing of her body in the same remote area every time. It’s not until he is caught that he embraces the idea that he is doing Allah’s work, loudly confessing to anyone who would listen that he killed the women.

Our take on Holy Spider

The performances and directing are fantastic in Holy Spider. In fact, it competed for the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 2022, and catapulted the career of Zar Amir-Ebrahimi to another level. Director Abbasi gives us an unsparing look at the desperate lives of the sex workers, most of them junkies. In fact, the actresses who played the prostitutes deserve recognition for their willingness and ability to play some of the ghastliest women I’ve ever seen onscreen. Abbasi is adept at using visual details to establish characters, such as when Rahimi removes her hijab, she is wearing jeans and an Iron Maiden T-shirt underneath. Although some criticize putting a fictional character into the story, I feel that using Rahimi’s anger and resignation about the hypocrisy of the situation-there would be no prostitutes without male clients, after all-is an excellent way to make a statement about the women’s rights situation without getting preachy. And his decision to include Saeed’s story proves to us that, indeed, the Spider Killer is just a man. Note that some viewers felt the violence bordered on gratuitous. I would agree that we didn’t need to see 3 killings, but in service of the story, we needed to see at least one.  

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