‘Holy Spider’ Spins a Web of Iran’s Contradictions

A new film revisiting the true story of the country's deadliest misogynist predator could not come at a more apt time

‘Holy Spider’ Spins a Web of Iran’s Contradictions
Zar Amir Ebrahimi plays Rahimi in “Holy Spider.” (Profile Pictures/One Two Films)

When Ali Abbasi’s graphically violent, “Persian noir” crime thriller, “Holy Spider,” opened at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2022, it was received with multiple audience walkouts. Since its recent cinematic release across North America, it has once again begun to garner controversy for its stark depiction of violence against women. The difficulty of watching the film’s brutal murder scenes is intensified by the fact that “Holy Spider” is based on the true story of an Iranian serial killer, Saeed Hanaei, who murdered 16 sex workers in the city of Mashhad between the years 2000 and 2001.

Abbasi’s is the third film to be made about Hanaei, who is renamed in the film as Saeed Azimi, played by Mehdi Bajestani. (The second was a feature film made in Iran, titled “Spider Killer,” released in 2020.) It is also by far the most timely, given the recent female-led protest movement that has swept Iran since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of the religious morality police in September 2022. The resulting uprising quickly became the most significant domestic challenge to the Islamic Republic since its inception.

Before those two films, in 2003, Hanaei was the subject of a documentary made after his detention and shortly before his execution, “And Along Came a Spider.” In the documentary, Hanaei presents himself as a righteous, God-fearing man on a divinely sanctioned mission to rid the world of social ills. Abbasi claims that watching the documentary when he was still in Iran was his primary inspiration for “Holy Spider.” In scenes recreated by Abbasi, Hanaei’s wife, son and even local residents of the city defend his actions, with what range from tentative (yet equally unsettling) rationalizations to passionate character endorsements.

Abbasi’s film, unlike the other two, was not shot in Iran (as originally planned) but in Jordan. Abbasi moved the production outside Iran after being denied a permit from the Islamic Republic’s Ministry of Culture censors. Filming outside the country allowed him to make the film the graphic depiction that it is.

The film’s opening sequence shows a bare-chested woman, scarred and bruised, with a cigarette dangling from her mouth, kissing her son goodnight and going to an unseemly public bathroom to put on high heels and makeup. She is then picked up by a man on the street, who takes her to his home to have sex and smoke opium. After that, she is picked up by a second man. Finally, after asking to see his money, she reluctantly gives in to a prowling Saeed on his motorbike and is taken to his home, where he strangles her with her own hijab. This disturbing sequence is repeated several times throughout the film, with minor variations.

The film is parsed between the perspectives of the prostitutes, Saeed, and the character of Rahimi (played by Zar Amir Ebrahimi), a fictional investigative journalist who acts as the film’s protagonist by pursuing the story of the infamous “spider killer” (Hanaei was called a “spider killer” because he lured women to his home, then strangled them and dumped their bodies). Saeed’s is the most developed and deeply psychologized of the film’s characters. He is simultaneously a middle-aged, working-class builder, a family man with a wife and young child, and a traumatized veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, whose Shiite religious fervor causes him to lament not being martyred on the battlefield. He is followed by Rahimi, who is mainly used as a foil to advance the plot and to communicate the daily social struggles of independent, middle-class Iranian women in a patriarchal society. Last come the sex workers, who are known only instrumentally through their victimhood.

On the one hand, critics of the film have condemned it for fetishizing violence against women in gratuitous, prurient scenes of prostitutes being killed by Saeed, while focusing too little on the female characters and too much on exploring Saeed’s psyche, causing it to be ultimately “self-defeating” in its “moral incoherence,” in the words of Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times.

In spite of her award-winning performance, Ebrahimi’s character (the journalist Rahimi) is seen by the film’s detractors to be “underwritten.” Even so, the fact that she gets more attention than any of Saeed’s victims only makes matters worse because, as Wendy Ide of the Guardian writes, it “unintentionally supports the idea that some women’s lives are worth more than others.” According to this perspective, the film hypocritically reproduces the dehumanizing attitude toward women that it sets out to critique.

On the other hand, different critics contend that the film’s stern, albeit stylized, realism is a harsh and unforgiving indictment of the systemic and cultural misogyny endemic to Iranian society.

Abbasi himself maintains that his film exposes the dark, seedy underbelly of life in Iran — a daily reality of prostitution, patriarchy and sociopolitical injustices. For Abbasi, if the film seems repugnant and misogynistic, it is because the reality is repugnant and misogynistic.

Yet, what, exactly, is the relation of the film to the real Iran? “Holy Spider” is a German, French, Danish and Swedish co-production that was shot in Jordan. Its director, Abbasi, lives in Denmark, and his last film, the award-winning “Border” (2018), was a Swedish folk-fantasy. His penchant for nudity and violence bears him more kinship with his Danish compatriot Lars von Trier than with any Iranian filmmaker. “Holy Spider’s” female lead, Zar Amir Ebrahimi, the 2022 winner of the Best Actress Award at Cannes, has lived in exile in France since 2008 due to a threat of imprisonment she received after a sex tape controversy. Her story has parallels with that of her character, Rahimi, who is uncomfortably probed by her male colleague about a rumor that she had sexual relations with her boss in Tehran before leaving for Mashhad.

In other words, the film is in many ways distant from the cultural geography of Iran. At the same time, it claims to depict, through its cinematic style and storytelling, the reality of Iranian society more viscerally and honestly than the country’s domestic cinema ever has.

Perhaps the solution to this apparent contradiction lies in taking a different approach than that of popular critics — an approach which interrogates the traumatic reality at the heart of the film itself. Reading the film as plain social commentary (i.e., as an indictment, successful or otherwise, of misogyny) is overly reductive. Rather than debating whether the film’s depiction of misogyny is pointed and accurate, or merely a reproduction of it in the form of a faux art-house crime drama, we should ask how the film itself accounts for and grounds the symbolic structure of misogyny that it narrates and ultimately presupposes.

The prevailing arguments about the theme of misogyny as a politically reinforced cultural malady are derived from two broader motifs (and their interrelation) that run throughout the film — namely, exposure and fantasy.

Exposure, in this context, has several dimensions. First, Abbasi claims to be exposing us to reality in a way that domestic Iranian cinema has not, or rather cannot, due to censorship. The main dilemma of postrevolutionary cinema in Iran has been censorship. Specifically, the requirement that all women in a film should wear a hijab has been the most complicating aspect of this censorship, as it precludes any filmic depiction of interior, intimate scenes that correspond to lived reality. Demonstrably, not only does Abbasi portray women in intimate contexts as unveiled, but he does much more than that by showing both male and female nudity. Abbasi deliberately transgresses the formal boundaries of Iranian cinema and, in this way, his film is already in dialogue with the filmic tradition he vocally disavows.

Second, Abbasi’s characters’ exposure of their ideology via their narrative works in tandem with the characters’ dialogue, which is more in keeping with traditional Iranian cinema. Abbasi’s film revolves around the axis of contradiction between the prohibitions of public life and the permissiveness, or perversion, of private life.

For example, in a scene where Rahimi goes to the police station in an attempt to glean information about the case from an officer in charge, she wears a full veil (chador) and has a mostly formal exchange with the officer, in which he deflects her questions and prohibits any kind of incursion. He also chastises her for having publicly written about the case in a way that portrayed the police as incompetent. Later in the film, the same officer shows up at Rahimi’s hotel room and coaxes her into letting him inside on the pretense of discussing work. He tells her, “Don’t let my uniform fool you. I may look tough on the outside, but I’m a sensitive guy.” When she rejects his sexual advances, he harasses and berates her. The public, exterior appearance of modesty — her hijab and his uniform — is not simply illusory. It is also the condition for suggesting possible erotic transgression. Abbasi’s film reverses the original distinction by exteriorizing the transgressive nature of the interior against the backdrop of public prohibition, thereby making its contradiction clear.

Exposure also takes shame and, at a more fundamental level, fantasy, as its objects. In one scene, Saeed brings home a prostitute who is particularly nonchalant and flirtatious. She teases him as he bashfully and awkwardly tries to push her away and tell her to stop. Emerging from the bathroom, she lifts up her skirt in front of him, at which point he quickly looks away and tells her to cover up, frustrated and perturbed. When, hesitantly, he puts his arms around her neck to start strangling her, she remarks, laughing, “So this is how you like it, huh” and begins to choke and wrestle with him, licking his beard. Saeed, ashamed, goes to the bathroom to perform religious ablutions (wudu) and pray before finally managing to do the deed.

Why does Saeed feel shame here? He feels it from the “exposure” of his own interiority, the breakdown of his own illusory self-image as an honest, pious man. The flirtatious prostitute exteriorizes what is personal, and publicly prohibited, to Saeed — his own lust. In other words, the prostitute’s behavior brings out the anxiety latent in his erotic fantasy.

We can read this against the quote by the Imam Ali that appears at the beginning of the film: “Every man shall meet what he wishes to avoid.” What Saeed wishes to avoid is twofold: desire and, therefore, life. Saeed embodies the death drive — an unconscious movement toward his own death. He sees himself as unfortunate for having not died in the war, for having not fulfilled the intense erotic pleasure, or jouissance, contained in the fantasy of martyrdom — a religious ideology that was adopted and heavily valorized by the Islamic Republic in widespread state propaganda during its war against Iraq in the 1980s. Saeed’s repression of desire is a function of this death drive. To not desire is to die. Yet, to actually will one’s own death is too traumatic for Saeed to enact. Therefore, he commits murder as a sublimation of his basically erotic desire for his own death. Having not died in the war, Saeed acts out a trauma that is not quite as traumatic as the jouissance of death itself, which he compulsively repeats by killing women and thereby his own desire for them.

The most disclosive sequence of the film is its ending. Saeed, in prison, is visited by a friend and fellow war veteran with state connections, who informs him that he has many supporters and will not be executed. Instead, when he is called for execution, there will be a van waiting for him in the back to take him away. When Saeed is taken for execution, the judge denies Rahimi her right to view it as a witness, despite her protests. She then asks the judge whether Saeed has received his corporal punishment of 100 lashes, at which point the judge directs an officer to take Saeed into a room, and the officer whips not Saeed but the wall. At this point, it seems the state is indeed on the side of Saeed. But, of course, when he is taken to be executed there is no van waiting for him. His response of shock and indignation is met with callousness, and he is executed.

Before being taken for execution, Saeed sticks his hand outside his cell window, and we see that it is raining. The camera shifts outside, and the rain stops, implying that the rain seen from Saeed’s cell was a mirage. Yet, when he pulls his hand back in, it is wet, and he performs ablutions in order to pray. What this shows is that Saeed actually believes in the fantasy — in a reality already emptied of truth — wherein the fundamental meaninglessness of ideology reigns.

The film’s ending reveals its primary theme: that reality is structured by a fiction, which is the condition of the possibility for misogyny to exist. The underlying structure of the society being depicted is one of absurdity, allowing contradictions to abound. The film’s characters play false roles, which are outwardly paradoxical but sustained by a network of fantasies. If there is a reality being exposed by Abbasi, it is that reality itself has broken down to its most traumatic core, embodied in Saeed. The symbolic order — the law and social norms — operates according to contradictory cultural fantasies that no one actually believes in, except Saeed, which leads him to destruction.

The state itself — the state that indoctrinated, traumatized and fostered Saeed — is a fiction. The Islamic Republic and its state apparatuses are, ultimately, the industry of functionaries in a capitalist system whose ideological makeup has no “real” coherence.

The Iranian state and its organs of repressive ideology have never been weaker than they are today. The perpetual weakening of the Islamic Republic is undoubtedly warranted by its irreconcilable contradictions. The act of exposing these contradictions and the fantasies that support them, as “Holy Spider” does, must be the task of any relevant cinema, Iranian or otherwise, in order to create the openings in which freedom becomes possible.

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