by Afra Nariman
Holy Spider (2022) – 2nd Viewing Review
Director: Ali Abbasi
Stars: Zar Amir Ebrahimi, Mehdi Bajestani, Arash Ashtiani
I had the opportunity to watch this for the second time in theaters; this time a Q&A with director Ali Abbasi and the film’s lead, Zar Amir Ebrahimi followed the screening, in which they spoke about the difficulty in shooting, casting and getting this film finally made, considering the obstacles they faced along the way.
For a more comprehensive review of Holy Spider, please refer to/read my first review of the film, here.
This time around, I’d like to just provide a focused analysis of the film’s ending — specifically, the scene of the execution. The first thing to note is that because this is based on a true story, it couldn’t have been done any other way. Audience members may react to the fact that the killer does have his execution carried out, with confusion — for a few reasons.
First, you may think: this film is a clear attack and critique of the Islamic Republic Regime — why wouldn’t they show how the regime lets people like the Spider Killer go?
Second, leading up to the execution, there were multiple signs that pointed to the authorities secretly letting him go. The prosecutor even tells the Spider Killer that they will sneak him away in a private car before the planned execution. Additionally, they don’t carry out the 100 lashes that was a part of the killer’s sentence. And lastly, as they are taking him into the execution room, despite the fact that the lead reporter, Rahimi, and her colleague are supposed to be the designated witnesses to the execution, they are not allowed inside to watch. All these factors lead the audience to believe that there is no plan to execute the Spider Killer. Yet, the execution is carried out moments later.
Again, it is important to remember two things: 1) this is a true story; they weren’t going to change the ending, and 2) this film is a full-blown critique of the Islamic Republic, and the systems which uphold their theocratic control of society. The execution scene is a continuation of the film’s critique of the regime. Abbasi presents everything in Holy Spider, as it was and is; and allows his audience to witness the events, decisions, and behaviors for what they are. Everything is shown to you.
This ending is a critique of the regime by illustrating how pertinent “saving face” is for them. They have no loyalty but to themselves; and are willing to do anything to maintain their public image. This is also why in midst the revolution in Iran right now, it is important to share videos, posts, and continue speaking about what is happening — to make sure the world is watching the regime’s oppressive, murderous evil in real time. Returning to the first sign that we were given that the killer might be set free; when the prosecutor told him of their plan to sneak him away before the execution is carried out — the prosecutor tells the killer that he must not mention this plan to anybody, including his family. Thus, he does not; and he dies with his family — notably, his son — seeing him face his consequences without fear or regret, in turn playing a potential part in inspiring his son to believe in his motives, that there was honor in what his father did, and some day follow in his footsteps — which we learn in the end, is what they (the regime and the religious fanatics) really want. Everyone on the outside believes that the courts are condemning his actions, even though they privately approve of them — allowing them to maintain their “public image” of decency (especially in the eyes of people in Tehran and others outside their holy city), but also leave room to inspire others to potentially continue the Spider Killer’s “mission.” By prohibiting the journalists from entering the execution room, they avoid letting them witness the killer’s cries of confusion and shock at the fact that he is actually going to be executed. This way, nobody will know that the authorities had privately conspired with the killer, and thus that they do conspire with similar criminals generally. The Spider Killer’s crimes were too large, and too extreme for them to find a viable way to let him free as they likely would have in most other cases, so to “save face” and offer the impression that the Islamic Republic doesn’t approve of such crimes; they carried out the execution — doing this while believing that the Spider Killer had started something that had garnered support from a significant amount of religious fanatics in the streets who would gladly partake in vigilantism, to continue the killer’s “jihad against vice.”
In one of the most generally disturbing and terrifying final scenes I’ve ever seen; the final scene of Holy Spider supports that previous sentiment — that others will have been inspired to continue the Spider Killer’s acts. The killer’s young son, when proudly reenacting for the camera what his father had been doing to his victims, employing his little sister to play the part of the victim; voices his admiration for what his father had done, and audibly leaves the possibility for him to continue in his father’s footsteps some day.
Holy Spider isn’t just a great film — it is a needed film. Very few films are as legitimately relevant to a nation and a culture at the specific time of their release, as Holy Spider is to Iranians right now. Western audiences may watch this and think it to blunt, too violent, etc. — and yeah, it is — but this is also a reality for Iranians. Not only literally, as this is a true story; but also figuratively. Western modes of thought cannot dictate how one views the depiction of violence and misogyny here. Context matters — both in terms of this film’s direct reaction to real-world factors and the patriarchal, theocratic systems which have permitted the oppression of women in Iran for 40+ years, and in terms of Holy Spider’s relative place within the broad scope of a historically censored Iranian cinema, which has never been allowed to so directly depict the violence, misogyny and theocratic injustices that explicitly exist in every aspect of daily-life under the dictatorship of the Islamic Republic Regime, and that are on full display in this film. For Iranians, these are not abstract concepts that are blown out of proportion for the effect of cinematic storytelling; these are a part of every-day life — and this reality has finally been exposed on film. The morality police, acting as an extension of the mullahs and religious fanatics, have violently harassed, beaten, and oppressed women on a daily basis since the regime took power 43 years ago. Every Iranian either has experienced this violence, or knows someone who has. That’s a fact.
The intersection between the violation of women’s rights and their livelihood, and the theocratic implementation of faith in society under the Islamic Republic, is at the heart of the current revolution in Iran; just as it is the subject of Holy Spider. The Spider Killer’s main mode of killing is literally using the women’s hijab to strangle them. Again, the film shows the physical violence against women that has persisted under the Islamic Regime (not only by religious fanatics like the Spider Killer, but also carried out daily by the Basiji, the morality police); and figuratively, the hijab, what was once considered a “symbol of faith” in Iran — now a symbol for oppression — is shown here as a symbol for what not only oppresses women, but diminishes their existence, suffocates them, and takes their life away from them — as the “weapon” of the killer, it does this literally in the film; but symbolically it does this in terms of its representing oppression through theocracy (the intersection between women’s livelihood and the patriarchal theocratic-state that is the government of the Islamic Republic).
Zan • Zendegi • Azadi ~ (Jin • Jiyan • Azadi)💚🤍❤️
MY RATING /5:
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