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Holy Spider (2022) Review – New Horizons International Film Festival

Holy Spider (2022) descends into the intimidating streets of Mashhad to follow a self-anointed vigilante who’s been murdering prostitutes between 2000 and 2001. Although this is not in the same league as Ali Abbasi’s phenomenal Border (2018), Holy Spider (2022) arrives at some demolishing conclusions – perhaps with too long of a runway for the take-off.

Known for his knack for severe thrills, Ali Abbasi casts his powerful spell within the first seconds of Holy Spider (2022). In the middle of a dark night, a woman kisses her daughter goodbye and leaves to wander around the streets of Mashhad in search of lustful clients. Observing how the rage of patriarchy unleashes itself on this poor soul through humiliation and abuse unravels more of the bone-deep unease than the prologue’s final scene – the introduction to the film’s antagonist that the woman eventually encounters.

Abbasi blurs the face of the devil yet reveals a crimson signet, hinted as the only breadcrumb tracing us back to the killer. Moments later – a flashback from Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario (2015). Director of Photography Nadim Carlsen captures the nocturnal view of the holy city, metaphorically captured as a web of luminous veins casting light over the thick void of the Mashhad’s guts. Be warned – this is the kingdom of the Holy Spider.

Only a few scenes later the identity of the murderer becomes clear, and so the shroud of mystery dissolves. Lacking this element of surprise crosses off the usual whodunnit part – obviously. Yet the Iranian director intentionally engages in the game of two opposite forces. Holy Spider (2022) engages in a stuffy back-and-forth game between the chased and the chasing one – a zealous journalist Rahimi (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi) and physical worker Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani), both mixed up in the hideous chess play of dirty politics and anti-women behaviors. One risks everything to catch the killer and make a stand for marginalized and humiliated women, while the latter one transforms and disconnects from real life.

Zar Amir-Ebrahimi starring in Iranian thriller Holy Spider (2022)

Despite the time given to Mehdi Bajestani in Holy Spider (2022), the Iranian actor manages to spread his wings in the film’s second half. For the vast majority of screentime, the Saeed’s a regular grey man, who blends in perfectly. The he-was-a-perfect-neighbor type like John Wayne Gary Jr., Saeed raises a daughter and takes good care of his supportive wife – an image seen in numerous cases of monsters leading double lives (a recent one is The Clovehitch Killer (2018)). In the manner of David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007), Abbasi too shows the ruthless acts in detail, scrutinizing the tiniest ritual, from screening the neighborhood under the cloak of night to picking up the victims and eventually killing them with brute force. Violence is often ornamented by Martin Dirkov’s ominous, overwhelming score and ghastly cinematography by Nadim Carlsen. Abbasi doesn’t need to flex his muscles too much, because Mashhad frightens on its own, even in broad daylight.

Yet as harrowing as seeing a completely bland man committing hateful murders can be, Bajestani’s portrayal never sells the religious fanaticism of the Spider. In contrast with the second half of the movie – one I’ll get to in a second – the lack thereof constitutes a serious issue. Abbasi makes attempts to show the amid believer in Saeed through routine prayers. Still, the transformation of the Spider isn’t as visceral as in other psychological portraits of murderers – such as Taxi Driver (1976), Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), or even Joker (2019). Misogyny, on the other hand, flows in abundance.

On the other side of the fence is Zar Amir-Ebrahimi’s character who, against all the odds, zealously tracks down the predator. Blocking the doors for her are hordes of malicious men who look down on the other sex with undisguised pride. The precedence of demeaning the opposite sex is overwhelmingly omnipresent, and starts on top of the food chain – the neglectful (and quite despiteful) chief police officer, or District Attorney. The lengths Rahimi goes are like staring at the lion’s mouth, and yet Holy Spider (2022) cannot escape a sense of formulaic picking-up-the-breadcrumbs pattern. Nevertheless, Amir-Ebrahimi draws us into her character’s feverish pursuit, even when the script stumbles.

Mehdi Bajestani as Saeed in Holy Spider (2022)

An hour in, Abbasi finally makes the final stroke of the brush on the investigation chapter and tackles the social impact of Holy Spider’s despiteful crimes. Like in Border (2018), where Abbasi’s power lies in the commentary concerning class division, Holy Spider (2022) too explores the process of manipulation and forming of societal dysfunctionalities and social insensitivity. The hatred boiling in Mashhad’s community draws a full circle in Abbasi’s lenses, in an infuriating turn of events that leads to the heroization of an insane criminal. This is the real horror of the film. Despite the raw violence that the director often peeks at through close-ups of post-mortem grimaces, it’s the awareness that the atrocious acts of hatred are hailed by the majority that leaves you shattered and infuriated. Perhaps the most paralyzing moment in the film arrives at its very end when Abbasi makes it clear – evil begets evil in the most wicked ways.

As a result, Holy Spider (2022) arrives at similar conclusions as Alex Garland’s recent horror Men (2022). Abbasi too reprobates patriarchy, showing how it poisons the collective mindset of an entire population and forces women to play the social roles of the frail and the powerless in the ever-existing threat of male dominance. While Garland looks at one woman’s tragedy, Abbasi shows the rot of a whole country. In that sense, Abbasi’s film strangely delivers more than it actually says. Between the lines of a film that not always connects all the dots, howls an unstoppable rage of a new society that desperately needs to abandon the archaic shackles and prejudices.

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