Holy Spider

Holy Spider (عنکبوت مقدس) poster

It is inescapable that the brightest light casts the darkest shadow in the Iranian holy city of Mashhad, home to shrines and mosques and three million people, one of whom is a serial killer. With nine women murdered in six months, all of them apparently prostitutes operating in the same part of the city, and all of them strangled with their headscarves before their bodies were dumped, if the police have no leads to follow up it is because they aren’t even looking.

Arriving from Tehran, journalist Arezoo Rahimi is not made welcome, initially refused a hotel room as a single woman travelling alone and discouraged from investigating by the police and senior clerics, instead finding herself trying to contact the women on the streets who might have seen something, a hard task when every man can be a threat, inevitably setting herself up as a target in order to break the wall of silence surrounding the case.

Holy Spider (عنکبوت مقدس); journalist Arezoo Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi) is cautioned against pursuing the investigation.

Directed by Border’s Ali Abbasi and based on the true story of Saeed Hanaei, executed in April 2002 for the murder of at least sixteen women and possibly more, Holy Spider (عنکبوت مقدس, ‘Ankabut-e moqaddas) draws its title from the name given the killer by the press, the Spider Killer, and his defence that he was doing the work of God, clearing the streets of corrupt and unclean women.

Starring Zar Amir Ebrahimi as Rahimi, her reputation tarnished by malicious lies even before her arrival, Mehdi Bajestani is Hanaei, his identity clear from the outset and the focus less on the investigation but on the personalities of the two, she reaching out to the ostracised and the families of the victims as she seeks to bring the truth to light, he seen as a family man and war veteran, devout and an honourable, but leading a double life where his actions somehow lead him to become an anonymous folk hero while his victims are condemned.

Holy Spider (عنکبوت مقدس); lured to his apartment, another woman is defenceless against former soldier Saeed Hanaei (Mehdi Bajestani).

“He’s cleaning up the streets for them,” Rahimi is told by the tearful mother of one of the victims, an opium addict who knows if she appeals to the authorities for justice she herself will be the one most likely to be prosecuted. “You think they’re going to arrest him?” Instead, without a helmet and without a care Hanaei rides on his motorbike with impunity while Rahimi is not allowed even to walk the dusty city streets without her hair suitably covered.

As much about the society which creates such disparity as about the crime itself, Holy Spider is uncomfortable but compelling viewing, Hanaei far from the “intelligent, well-prepared lone killer” the police anticipate but an opportunist allowed to persist because his victims are seen as unimportant, one of the few concessions made surprisingly by the cleric whom Rahimi meets who regards prostitution as a social problem of those already poor and desperate, one which could presumably be remedied if the political will were present.

Holy Spider will be in cinemas across the UK and Ireland from Friday 20th January and will be streaming exclusively on MUBI from Friday 10th March

Holy Spider (عنکبوت مقدس); moving through the city at night, Saeed Hanaei (Mehdi Bajestani) is unseen as he disposes of another dead body.



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