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Lady Killer of the Night

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Profile Pictures and One Two Films

MOVIE REVIEW
Holy Spider (2022)

It’s 2001, in the Iranian city of Mashhad, the nation’s spiritual capital. At first we follow a drug-addicted sex worker (Firouz Agheli) as she leaves her little daughter asleep in bed and goes about her unhappy trade. Her only comfort comes from smoking opium with a friend; the johns she meets cheat her of money and physically abuse her. Then she is murdered in shocking close-up by a man who wraps her body in a carpet, lays it across the back of his motorbike and rides out of the city to dispose of her in the hills.

The murderer is a middle-aged construction worker named Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani), who lives with his younger wife Fatima (Fourouzan Jamshidnejad) and their three children in the flat where he commits his crimes. The lack of mystery around the murderer’s identity is be design. Director Ali Abbasi, who cowrote the script with Afshan Kamran Bahrami, was inspired by an infamous true story to . . . well, that’s the question. Is he trying to show what happens when misogyny is taken to an extreme? Is he on the side of the murderer, or of the people trying to catch him? Is he aiming for so-called objectivity, or has he sensationalized the thing he’s trying to denounce?

A little later, Arezoo Rahmini (Zar Amir Ebrahimi, also the casting director) discovers she cannot check into a hotel as a woman by herself until she shows the desk clerk her journalist ID. She has come to report on the murders, and has a contact at the local paper, Sharifi (Arash Ashtiani), whom the Spider Killer calls directly to confirm the location of each new body. The local police are stymied by the lack of witnesses, without a single clue (lol) and seemingly unable to investigate anything without a spontaneous confession. The religious clerks who control the city are unimpressed by Rahmini’s questions and loath to admit there is an underbelly in a place meant to be pure and holy. But Rahmini has a major professional point to prove with this investigation and is willing to do whatever it takes to get her story. Sharifi tags along, not remotely pleased with her choices but knowing she is safer with a male colleague at her side and willing to share responsibility. And Saeed goes to work, takes his family on a day out for a picnic and most horribly makes love to Fatima on the living room floor while the body of another murdered woman is hidden nearby in their flat.

Fatima is not really in danger, of course. Saeed considers her to be a good woman, not like the “corrupt” ones he strangles with their headscarves tied around their throats. It’s Rahmini who is at risk. At one point she unwillingly shares a cigarette with a police contact (Sina Parvaneh) who’s invited himself into her hotel room to discuss the case. This emboldens him to call her a worthless slut and casually threaten her with rape due to this “corrupt” behavior. The policeman and Saeed are both just doing what they can get away with, and it’s Rahmini who is left with the cold knowledge that no one will protect her but herself.

Ms. Ebrahimi plays Rahmini as fearless in standing up to power regardless of her personal safety, which is undoubtedly what earned her the Best Actress prize at Cannes. Mr. Bajestani’s rumpled weariness is reminiscent of Ian Holm, in that it’s also evenly split between resignation and eyeball-popping fury. But at the Toronto International Film Festival, what left the greatest impression was the fact that Mr. Abbasi spent too much time relishing the acts he meant to denounce. Did cinematographer Nadim Carlsen really have to film so many of the murders in tight close-up, giving us Saeed’s pleasure as he witnesses another life snuff out under his hands? Since the answer was yes, “Holy Spider” chose sensationalism and therefore unfortunately betrayed its own ideals. Toward the end there’s a strange scene with Saeed, which should not be spoiled, which is left deliberately vague as to whether it’s a hallucination or an unprovable fact. Thanks to this cop-out, no one is genuinely held to account. What are we meant to feel? The upsetting coda involving two of Saeed’s children strongly implies nothing will change. But as we look at the news coming out of Iran this week we know that’s not true.

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