by Afra Nariman
Holy Spider (2022)
Director: Ali Abbasi
Stars: Zar Amir Ebrahimi, Mehdi Bajestani, Arash Ashtiani
Watched @ NBFF ’22
“No, I don’t trust the police.”
A raw and shocking new addition to Iranian cinema; Holy Spider is particularly unsettling and stressful to watch considering the current circumstances in Iran. The film is patient in scenes depicting violence, making such scenes truly difficult to keep your eyes on at times. If anything, the film perhaps leans into the spectacle of violence a bit too much; but overall I think that it is effective in what it sets out to accomplish. Holy Spider portrays evil by showing us how evil thinks and acts. Rather than the film unveiling a reality in Iran that audiences in the West are not aware of — due to the recent protests, the stories of the rising revolution, and the now lit spotlight on the systematic, misogynistic and theocratic injustices experienced by the people (particular women) in Iran — this evil is known by most audience members at this point. While in a sense this does make the acts we witness less shocking, in that we are already aware of the evils that occur; the film still frames these scenes in such a way that finds a way to shock through its patient embrace of the uncomfortable and disturbing.
Holy Spider illustrates the dangers of religious fanaticism, and the hypocrisy that religion can be as a guiding principle for people’s abstract, twisted notions of morality and the actions they take to preserve their warped vision of “the good.”
Being that this was not an Iranian production (Denmark), the film is able to approach the issues at hand in a very direct way. Iranian filmmakers such as Jafar Panahi have consistently made socially conscious films which critique the government, the theocracy, discuss women’s issues, and any number of other critical themes and topics; but here Abbasi is able to tell this story without needing to circumvent censors. Thus, Holy Spider does not utilize a mode of subversion in the same way as Panahi or Farhadi have needed to in their works. Although their use of subversion is what makes their films masterpieces of social drama, and is what makes them thought-provoking and their legacy, lasting; there is also a value in the “holds no punches” approach adopted in Holy Spider.
The subversion here is not in the film’s presentation of its sociopolitical messaging or in its exploration of critical themes — these things are presented to us bluntly, and are in the open. The subversion exhibited in Holy Spider is instead regarding its bending of the “serial killer” genre.
Unlike similar films of the “serial killer genre,” such as Memories of Murder or Zodiac, the ‘Spider Killer’ is found relatively early in the film. As the protagonist Rahimi says as they await the verdict:
“It’s not over.”
The rest of the film is essentially focused on examining the mentality of a religious fanatic and is an interrogation of the systems which permit such evil to persist in society, and which further maintain the patriarchy and theocracy. In other words, rather than the film focusing on the investigation and the experience of the victims — it sets out to reveal a macro-criticism of the corrupt system which allows such acts to take place.
A review of this film can’t end without giving praise to the incredible performance by the lead actress, Zar Amir Ebrahimi, in her portrayal of the fearless journalist at the center of the story’s investigation. Much like how the current revolution in Iran — a movement which has brought the injustices and cruelty of the Islamic Republic to the world’s attention — is a revolution led by fearless women; in Holy Spider too, Ebrahimi assumes the role of the fearless leader of the story, who discovers the truth that the police wanted to ignore and that many members of the court wanted to forgive. As the story’s leader and moral compass, she is who unveils the injustices and cruelty of the system; bringing these truths to the world’s attention (and the audience’s).
Ebrahimi is already the first Iranian actress to win the top actress award at the Cannes Film Festival. Now begins the campaign to get her nominated for an Oscar, and hopefully a groundbreaking win.
Zan • Zendegi • Azadi ~ (Jin • Jiyan • Azadi)
NOTE: A relatively detailed analysis of the film’s ending, which includes spoilers, can be read in my second review of Holy Spider, found here — thanks for reading!
MY RATING /5:
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