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November 07, 2022

Denver Film Festival - Holy Spider

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Ali Abassi - 2022

There is not great distance between Tina, the troll (the fairy tale kind) in Ali Abassi's previous film, Border, and the Tehran based journalist, almost always formally addressed as Ms. Rahimi. Tina's genetic and physical differences maker her an asset in investing crime on behalf of Sweden while simultaneously making her a perpetual outsider to society at large. Arezoo Rahimi is an outsider in the Iranian city of Mashhad, sent be her newspaper to investigate why a serial killer is still at large. The basic story of the serial killer is real, while Ms. Rahimi is the invention of Abassi. Holy Spider exists as more than a story that splits between the murderer and his pursuer, but a portrait of the institutionalized contradictions regarding women that exist in an Islamic state.

Especially as Iranian life and politics are at best vaguely understood by a stateside audience, a few things should be mentioned. Mashhad is a city in the northwest corner of Iran, and the second largest city in the country. Mashhad is most famous for the shrine of Iman Reza, and is the site of religious pilgrimages. Mashhad is also known as the "place of martyrdom", which helps explain how the killer, Saeed, justifies his actions. As a yet to be identified murderer, Saeed is identified in the newspapers as "The Spider". The "holy" comes from Saeed seeing is actions as part of a self-appointed fatwa, clearing Mashhad of "corrupt" women. Saeed is a war veteran feeling guilty for being neither wounded nor being able to claim martyrdom by death in battle. From the point of view of his neighbors and possibly law enforcement, the murder of sex workers is a public service. For all of his problems, Saeed is also a caring family man. In a break from the overall seriousness, Saeed is shown playing with his young daughter when she interrupts his afternoon prayer.

Arezoo is the vehicle by which Abbasi shows the difficulty of life of women who exist by choice or circumstance outside the traditional family. Simply checking into a hotel room requires some verbal jousting between Arezoo and the clerk who initially denies her reservation. Arezoo comes with her own baggage of an alleged sex scandal involving a previous employer. That the victims are all sex workers makes Arezoo suspect that solving the crime is not a priority of the police. A local official notes that some of the women were in desperate situations through no fault of their own, yet how seriously should one take the homilies? There is one scene that uses a classic trope with Arezoo, hoping to bait the Spider by pretending to be a street walker, is pursued through dark alleys by an unidentified man on a motorbike.

As a crime thriller, the putative villain is already identified for audience but not the investigators. In addition to the story of how Saeed is caught are the strands of how Saeed lived in an environment that helped protect him, while Arezoo had to work around ingrained sexism to get at the truth. Even when the case is closed, there are still a few more twists to be revealed. Most troubling of all is the suggestion that there are others who have expressed the desire to take Saeed's place.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 7, 2022 04:00 AM