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Film: Holy Spider

27 January 2023

Stephen Brown sees a film about faith inspiring crime

Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi) in Holy Spider

Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi) in Holy Spider

ALI ABBASI’s film Holy Spider (Cert. 18), about the Iranian real-life serial killer Saeed Hanaei (played here by Bajestani Gholam), evokes memories of Peter Sutcliffe, dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper. Both men believed that their murders were committed in obedience to God. Hanaei, reinforced by living in a holy city, Mashad, is on a divine mission to cleanse its streets of vice. He does this on behalf of Iman Reza, a descendant of Muhammad, whose shrine there is visited by millions of pilgrims every year.

After police continually fail to identify the murderer, the journalist Arezoo Rahimi (Zahra Amir Ebrahimi) travels from Tehran, seeking justice, despite various barriers thrown up. Even checking into a hotel is made difficult for her on account of being single. When the chador slides off her hair a little, she risks being reported to the morality police. A leading cleric warns her not to pursue enquiries. He denies that the killer has been issued with a fatwa against prostitutes, and that they deserved to die.

The investigating detective allows Rahimi access to a victim’s body, hoping that he will secure sexual favours, her reputation unjustly besmirched by powerful figures in Tehran who are protecting their own kind. The coroner doesn’t return calls, whereas a fellow male journalist has no problems. While institutional misogyny and hypocrisy in a country such as Iran will not surprise us, there is an implication that not all inappropriate attitudes among our own police and courts, highlighted back in the 1981 Byford report on the Ripper case, have disappeared. All of this serves to increase this film’s relevance to us.

The sobriquet “Holy Spider” derives from a signature left on each victim. The movie leaves no doubt how brutal Hanaei can be, whereas, at home with his family, he is good and loving. Helping to fuel his fanatical religious convictions is a lack of purpose in life ever since returning in the late 1980s from the Iraq-Iran War. Contemplating Mashad’s martyrs, past and present, he harbours survivor’s guilt.

That alone wouldn’t account for what he does. As with Sutcliffe (brought up a Roman Catholic), it is ultimately faith that impels Hanaei to perform what he considers a sacred duty. Both men are extreme examples of Jonathan Swift’s notion that we have enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love, one another. The film is equally disturbing, when, after Hanaei’s arrest, the same citizens who lived in fear of their lives now regard him as a hero. The prostitutes whom he has slaughtered are beneath public contempt: corrupt women seducing other wives’ husbands, as if their men were innocent of any offence. The authorities are torn between upholding law and order (just before elections) and appeasing public opinion.

Rahimi (for which Zhara Amir Ebrahimi won Best Actress award at Cannes) represents many of us, caught in a spider’s web of collusion with the perversion of a society’s cultural norms. This is a film not just about one particularly odious criminal, nor a rogue state like Iran. It is also asking if or how our own religious views may have become distorted.

In cinemas from 20 January and streamed on MUBI from 10 March.

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