Philadelphia Film Festival Review – Holy Spider

Philadelphia Film Festival Review – Holy Spider

Ali Abbasi has completed one of the biggest genre jumps in the history of journeyman filmmakers, and done so between two excellent films. His previous film, Border, told the quirky, fantastical story of a troll-like customs worker who has the ability to smell crime, and their surprising romance with a similar being. It was indescribably weird, and very, very good. His latest, Holy Spider, is not a fantasy film, nor is it operating with any amount of quirkiness (it’s also not based on a Lindqvist story, which makes all the difference in the world). What we have here is a truly chilling procedural that follows two intertwined stories: that of a journalist and that of the serial killer she’s investigating.

Where this gets tricky is in the location. Holy Spider takes place in the Iranian holy city of Mashhad, an extremely patriarchal religious state where sympathy toward a killer who targets female sex workers extends much farther than for a female journalist attempting to shake up the status quo.

One would expect a procedural like this to take a whodunit approach to finding the killer, but by taking a different route and letting us in on his identity from the outset, we are able to probe much deeper into the social and mental forces which drive the actions of our protagonist/antagonist. In the case of the former, Rahimi (Zar Amir-Enrahimi), we watch with stomach-churning frustration as the patriarchal religious state provides oppressive hurdles to justice masked as morality. For the latter, Saeed (Mehdi Bakestani), this “morality” doesn’t just allow him to get away with literal murder, it actively enables it, furthermore giving him an excuse to think of his craft as a moral crusade, masking the fact that he’s no different than any other serial killer, insofar as he gets off on hurting his victims.

The cinematography by longtime Abbasi collaborator Nadim Carlson, is jaw-dropping throughout. Two sides of Mashhad are exhibited, that of the sprawling civic center as well as that of the labyrinthine ghetto where an underground culture can thrive. This visual dichotomy mirrors the depicted world, where “morality” reigns, but also where a thriving economy of sex workers has no shortage of customers. Another dichotomy comes through in the pacing of the film. The action moves along slowly, highlighting the drudgery of the hunt, but it never feels slow. As our protagonist pushes her way through needless oppression and bureaucracy, the urgency is felt. Holy Spider is simultaneously a brisk two-hours-and-change, and a turgid narrative that makes you want to scream.

This is by design, and it works like gangbusters. Holy Spider is beyond terrifying and all too believable (it should be noted that it is loosely based on real events). A flawless marriage of performance and craft. It will haunt me for the foreseeable future.

Directed by Ali Abbasi

Written by Ali Abbasi, Afshin Kamran Bahrami, Jonas Wagner

Starring Zar Amir-Ebrahimi, Mehdi Bajestani, Arash Ashtiani, Forouzan Jamshidnejad

Not Rated, 116 minutes

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