‘Holy Spider’ Review: Brutality Tale

Like many a serial-killer drama, this movie about a real-life Iranian murderer who targeted prostitutes is a grisly thriller parading as a morality tale.

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By Devika Girish

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Like many a serial-killer drama, “Holy Spider” is a grisly-gruesome thriller parading as a moral tale. Directed by the Denmark-based Iranian filmmaker Ali Abbasi, the movie tells the story of Saeed Hanaei (Mehdi Bajestani), a construction worker and war veteran in Mashhad, Iran, who strangled 16 prostitutes to death in 2000 and 2001. His case led to a media frenzy when his purported quest to “cleanse” his hometown — a spiritual hub for Shiite Muslims — generated public support from hard-line Iranians.

The irony at the heart of “Holy Spider” is fascinating and timely: How does a holy city not just foster but actively embolden prostitution, a drug trade and reckless slaughter? The film’s genre-movie stylings, however, flatten these sociopolitical questions into psychosexual spectacles. Abbasi seems enamored by the contradictions of Hanaei, who was at once an upstanding Muslim, a family man, a pervert and a ruthless killer. But anyone who reads the news, anywhere in the world, will respond to these rote hypocrisies of misogyny with little other than jadedness.

And for all the time the movie devotes to Hanaei’s life, we learn little about the lives of Mashhad’s prostitutes, who only appear briefly before their gratuitously detailed killings. Instead, Abbasi makes the fictionalized character of Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi) — a Tehrani journalist whose own experience with sexual harassment drives her crusade to catch the killer — the film’s sole representative of women’s concerns, burdened with an implausible cat-and-mouse arc. In reality, Hanaei was arrested after one woman fought him back and escaped, and reported him to the police, in spite of the risks involved. Her story of courage feels far worthier of a movie than Abbasi’s grim vision of murder and mania.

Holy Spider
Not rated. In Persian, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 56 minutes. In theaters.

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