Movie Review: A Dogged Reporter Hunts a Serial Killer in Theocratic Iran — “Holy Spider”

The murders in “Holy Spider,” a Danish thriller about an Iranian serial killer, are some of the most disturbing ever filmed. There’s nothing pretty about strangling someone to death, and no avoiding the pathos in the victim’s eyes as she struggles to free herself from a brute’s chokehold and she breathes her last.

We pity each one, hope for justice and fear for the intrepid reporter hunting this murderer by any means at her disposal. But as the killer is a devout Muslim and the victims are streetwalkers and junkies, there are no guarantees that any sort of “Hollywood ending” is coming. Not in Iran. Not any time soon.

Director and co-writer Ali Abbasi’s film is a “police procedural” as seen through the eyes of a reporter doing what the police won’t — tracking down the man motorbiking through the Mahshad night, picking up sex workers and strangling them, dumping their bodies on the outskirts of town.

Zar Amir-Ebrahimi (“Tehran Taboo”) is Arezoo Rahimi, a Tehran reporter come to this “holy city” not on pilgrimage, but to find out why the police are not having any luck at tracking down a killer who has claimed a dozen victims already. She is sophisticated and testy, quick to bite the head off an inquisitive “morality police” enabling hotel clerk who wants her to “Please cover your hair.”

To a one, the men this woman has to deal with in this patriarchal, theocratic “man’s world” are self-satisfied and assured of their permanent status in the hierarchy. But if they don’t give a damn that some creep is murdering hookers, maybe someone in Tehran will be, if she can just get to the bottom of this.

“DNA” testing is new and “Tehran doesn’t know what it’s doing” with it, as local reporter Sharifi (Arash Ashtiani) explains, making excuses. His own coverage has been sanitized, and she’s as shocked as we are that the killer has been calling Sharifi to vent and rant and tell him where the latest body is.

Because A) Sharifi recorded those calls, B) never told the cops and C) his reason was that the killer has declared a “fatwa” against the “corrupt women,” and nobody — not the police, not the mullahs or Imams — would want that Islamic “justification” reported.

So it’s no surprise that the cop (Sina Parvaneh) in charge is more interested in flirting with the reporter than getting a prostitute to act as “bait” for the killer. Even if they’ve seen 100 police procedurals on TV, that doesn’t mean Iran’s police would risk sharia law violations to solve the case.

Our heroine is deathly disturbed by all this, appalled by the nature of the crimes and cynical about whether justice will ever be done. Because when the cops are this slow-footed, it’s because they don’t care or maybe they figure the killer is doing the Islamic Republic a favor.

Denmark’s selection as its Best International Feature Oscar contender is in Persian with English subtitles, an Iranian story told with uncensored European brutality and sexual frankness. Abbasi shocks usstraight off with nudity and explicit sex, punctuated with the horrific murder of a sex worker who leaves her little girl behind for the night to go and earn enough to keep them alive.

Even if you’re a jaded movie-goer who figures she or he have seen it all when it comes to violence in the cinema, that first murderous assault is jarring as well as heartbreaking.

Abbasi (“Border”) tells his story from a multiple points of view. We sometimes follow the sex workers’ lives right up to the moment they meet murderous Saeed (Medhi Bajestani, hatefully brilliant) on his bike. Other times, we see his home life, work life, preparations and cover-up.

Mostly though, it is Rahimi’s point of view that we identify with. Professional woman or not, Arezoo has lived as a second class citizen her entire life. She knows the perils of the patriarchy, how little control or power she has in most interactions with men. She’s faced consequences for not knowing “your place.”

It’s impossible not to see this character and this riveting performance by Amir-Ebrahimi’s and not think of the brave women protesting their treatment and status right now on the streets of Iran’s cities. Arezoo, like hundreds of thousands of her sisters, persists.

But even as she persists, she dare not even hope that an arrest will lead to a conviction, that a conviction will lead to justice or that anything will change as yet another generation ages through a status quo that is repressive, dangerous and soul-crushing. In a state where religion is used to justify a Middle Eastern version of a phrase all-too-familiar to women in many parts of the Western world — a “war on women,” she is both combatant and designated victim, with no easy way to fight back.

Rating: unrated, graphic violence, explicit sex, profanity

Cast: Zar Amir-Ebrahimi, Arash Ashtiani, Sina Parvaneh and Mehdi Bajestani

Credits: Directed by Ali Abbasi, scripted by Ali Abbasi and Afshin Kamran Bahrami. A Utopia release.

Running time: 1:54

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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