In the disturbingly unfortunate year of 2022 itself, the morality police of Iran subjected Mahsa Amini to unthinkable harassment, a brutal imprisonment, and, eventually, a horrifying death. A 22-year-old woman’s very life itself was snatched from her for not following the Islam-enforced holy rule of covering every single strand of hair. Undoubtedly a feeling resulting from the privileges of living in a relatively free society, the very (and sorry) existence of a government-sanctioned group of religious bullies seems atrociously dystopian to many of us. But that is the day-to-day truth for many. It is an alarming reality that Shia Islam-run Iranians are brainwashed into believing, threatened into following, and manipulated into imposing. While the explicit contents in Ali Abbasi’s “Holy Spider” cannot be deemed sacrilegious by anyone who is not desperately conservative, the film wasn’t allowed to be shot in Iran lest it “pollute” the god-fearing, good people with blasphemy.
Abbasi’s 2022 Persian-language crime thriller is as strong a voice against the fundamental horrors of Iran’s fatwa-approved, deep-rooted misogyny as it is triggering documentation of the terrors inflicted by the real-life serial killer Saeed Hanaei. Religious extremist Saeed had taken on the job of “cleaning” the holy city of Mashhad by murdering 16 sex workers. Cannes crowned Zar Amir Ebrahimi with the Best Actress Award for her moving portrayal of Arezoo Rahimi, the fictional journalist who not only braves her grim way through systemic oppression on a daily basis but also risks her own life to bring down the notorious killer. Joining the fierce protests usually led by women against Iran’s abusive treatment of anyone who dares to defy its unreasonable laws, “Holy Spider” critiques the very establishment that doesn’t see a difference between sensible faith and religious psychosis.
‘Holy Spider’ Plot Synopsis: What Happens In The Film?
From the opening scene itself, we get a suggestive peek at what a night on the formidable streets of Mashhad looks like. A woman bids goodnight to her little girl and goes out to make a living. Wearing forbidden makeup, she stands on the gloomy street with the city asleep and the predators awake. Her first encounter with a client goes as well as it can. But her second encounter, which leaves her with considerably less money than she was owed, frustrates her into smoking opium with the dealer to whom she owes money. The next man that approaches her with the promise of money and more opium drives her to his house on a motorcycle. Insisting that she wear a burqa to hide from the curious eyes of his neighbors, the man asks her to follow him upstairs to his room. Be it her experience with shadier-than-usual men or her self-preservation instinct; something tells her that she should not go in. But before she can get herself out of imminent danger, the man strangles her with her own scarf and drops her body at a deserted spot.
Somayeh, the sex worker who was murdered, happens to be another unfortunate victim of the menacing Spider Killer, who haunts the streets of Mashhad in search of “morally corrupt” women to kill. To investigate the murders, journalist Arezoo Rahimi comes to the city. Welcomed by sexist moral policing right off the bat, Rahimi can’t even get a room in a hotel as a single woman who isn’t escorted by a man. That is until she shuts them up with her journalist ID, and the issue seems to be promptly resolved. Rahimi pays a visit to local reporter Sharifi, who has been receiving calls after every murder, and that too from the killer himself. As she witnesses the indifference of the entire city and its law enforcement, Rahimi concludes that there must be a higher authority that is not only protecting the criminal but also silently encouraging his jihadi crimes.
Cut to the life of the Spider Killer himself: a mason by profession, Saeed hides his horrifying alter-ego with ease by maintaining his social and personal life as a husband and father of two. While the cracks in his disturbed psyche are barely noticeable from a distance, his wife Fatima does keep a close eye on her husband’s oddities, but she assumes those to be the signs of an affair. Clearly afflicted with PTSD post the Iran-Iraq war, Saeed is simultaneously drowning in a distorted sense of purposelessness and the indomitable urge to rid Imam Reza’s city of immoralities. As Rahimi’s frantic search for the Spider Killer continues, so does Saeed’s dreadful hunt for unsuspecting sex workers. Instead of help, Rahimi receives only disdain from the judge of the court of religion. And her conversation with the investigating officer throws light on the absolute laidback treatment the murder cases are being given.
What Makes Rahimi Take The Investigation Upon Herself?
Her time in Mashhad makes Rahimi realize that not only are people disinterested in finding the Spider Killer, but they’re also not going to provide her with any assistance whatsoever. Her only friend in the unfriendly city is Sharifi, but even he is apprehensive about crossing the socially acceptable limits to help her. Rahimi’s plan of asking the women if they’ve seen the perpetrator doesn’t quite pan out. Her experience with the victims’ families is also unpleasant due to the disgust they harbor for their own daughters. A call from Sharifi drags Rahimi to the spot where the killer dumps the bodies. She is horrified to see the lifeless corpse of the woman she recently had an encounter with. Rahimi meets the mother of the victim, who happens to be the opium dealer Somayeh met on the night of her death. Hardly breaking down anymore after enduring the horrors of ostracisation and religious abuse all her life, the woman tells Rahimi that she expects nothing to come of her daughter’s death.
What comes as the final push that Rahimi needs in order to give up any expectations of help is the awfully inappropriate advance and harassment she faces from the investigating officer himself. The traumatizing experience not only comes as an eye-opener but also as another reminder of the depressing state of women in a country that has bent its knees to the radical laws of religion. Unsurprisingly, her encounter with the cop wasn’t the first time she paid the price of being a woman in a frighteningly misogynistic state. She was wrongfully sacked from her job with the false accusation of having an inappropriate relationship with her editor when in reality, she had been sexually harassed by him. Instead of numbing her down with fear, her experience with the cop lights a fire or rage within Rahimi. And it is a rage that can only be soothed when the Spider Killer is caught and punished.
How Does Rahimi Catch The Spider Killer?
Getting away with each murder makes Saeed think of himself as an invincible warrior of the Almighty. But at the same time, the increasing gaps between each murder have made him desperate and sort of sloppy. Rahimi’s frustration comes to a point where she cares more about finding the Spider Killer than her own safety. She makes it a point to pose as a sex worker and frequent the spots where the killer picks up his victims. On a fateful night, her alarming wish comes true. She finds herself being asked to get on the motorcycle by the killer himself. Risking her own life, Rahimi agrees to go to his place. A panic-stricken Sharifi follows Rahimi and Saeed. But he soon loses sight of the bike when it goes down a lane that is too narrow for a car. Even though Rahimi is scared out of her mind, she has come too far not to follow through. She gets into Saeed’s apartment and secretly turns on the recording device. Saeed’s experienced eyes notice Rahimi’s nervousness, but he brushes off his doubts quickly with the thought that she may be new at this. His thirst for murder is too strong to be overpowered by any other thought anyway. When Saeed goes for Rahimi’s throat, she quickly gets herself out of his hold by pointing her knife at him. But Saeed isn’t one to give up that easily. At this point, keeping his identity a secret becomes the driving force that pushes him to overpower Rahimi by any means. However, only dealing with relatively frail women so far has made Saeed overconfident about his own physical strength. Using his rashness and his sprained hand against him, Rahimi frees herself from his grip and screams out of his window to get his neighbors’ attention. While Saeed is panicking about his neighbors finding out what he has been doing, Rahimi finds the perfect distraction and runs out. Although the process isn’t shown in the film, we can assume that the irrefutable evidence Rahimi gathers against Saeed makes it difficult for law enforcement not to take her seriously. Saeed soon gets arrested and dragged away from his home by the police.
‘Holy Spider’ Ending Explained – Does The Spider Killer Pay For His Crimes?
What shocks Rahimi and us is the immense support Saeed gets from the people of Mashhad. People of the “holy” city flock to validate Saeed’s Jihadist crimes as the Almighty’s design. Even his own wife doesn’t condemn the murders he committed. Instead, Fatima reassures her impressionable son Ali that his father did nothing wrong by killing the corrupted women who seduce other people’s husbands. Marveling at the love and support his imprisoned father is getting, Ali forms a glorified image of Saeed in his mind. They are getting groceries for free. Crowds of people are protesting outside the courthouse for the freedom of Saeed. For a wide-eyed child born and brought up in the thick of Mashhad’s extreme religious indoctrination, it isn’t at all surprising that Ali sees his father as a hero.
Saeed holds his head high in court. There’s not a smidgeon of remorse in the killer of 16 women. Even when he is advised to plead with the argument that he is mentally ill, Saeed butchers the plan by singing about his love for Imam Reza and justifying the murders in the name of religion. When Rahimi interviews Fatima, all she hears is blatant victim shaming and the celebration of Saeed’s lunacy. However, it’s worse for Rahimi when she sits face-to-face with Saeed. Instead of a show of remorse, Saeed greets Rahimi with the same smugness that has been his signature style ever since he was incarcerated. The city and the religious court’s unwillingness to punish Saeed doesn’t stand a chance against the political pressure they are facing from the government. Saeed receives a death sentence. To keep him from riling up the protestors, he is told that he will be given a secret way out on the day of his execution. While he is spared from being lashed a hundred times, Saeed is forced onto the platform, where the executioner ties the knotted rope around his neck. He truly believed in the motive behind his crimes. Therefore, he truly believed that his crimes would go unpunished. Even moments before his death, Saeed screams out to be saved. But there is no god in the execution room. The supposed holy power of Imam Reza couldn’t bother itself with saving the life of a lunatic.
Why Did Saeed Become The Spider Killer?
The film’s brave and candid portrayal of the socio-religious (or sociopolitical for a country that is controlled by religion) scenario of Iran gives out the haunting picture of radical intolerance. It is a place where the families of the victims are more ashamed of their daughters than enraged by their deaths. It is a place where the son of the killer gleefully acts out the terrifying process of his father and makes his little sister play the part of the victim. There is a line in religious beliefs where faith ends, and radicalism begins. However, the opinions of liberal outsiders hardly matter to the countries that choose to be run by the deranged laws of religion. Iran has predominantly been notorious for the shackles it binds its people in the name of morality. For the most part, moral shackles confine women. In the chaos of it all–at some point–the people that are brainwashed blend in with the ones that are brainwashing them. Saeed, like most people he has encountered throughout his life, sees women through the disturbing fog of moralism that has accumulated before his eyes. For him, condemning women for the slightest “missteps” comes easy. Considering all that, his absolute hatred for sex workers is something that was bound to be there. But at the same time, the majority of Mashhad sees sex workers as heinous beings. So why is it that Saeed is the one to wield the morality sword?
There’s a point where religious and patriotic extremism meet and wreak havoc. Just like there’s a line between loving one’s country and committing crimes for it, there’s also a risky stage in faith where the love for the Almighty can transcend into extreme religious delusion. For Saeed, it was both. He fought in the Iran-Iraq war and saw people get martyred for the country. And when it comes to a country that lives and breathes religion, patriotism and faith go hand in hand. Saeed convinced himself that he would only be worthy if he made a grand sacrifice for Iran and Imam Reza. He could not be martyred in the war. He didn’t even lose a limb for the glorious cause. His feeling of failure, combined with the lack of a grand purpose, weighed heavily on his mind. Spiraling down the path of complete psychosis, Saeed chose murder in the name of religion as his offering to the Almighty. Deluded by his wretched purpose, Saeed didn’t really see himself as a murderer. Instead, he named himself the “Jihadi of Decadence.”
“Holy Spider” is a 2022 Drama Thriller film directed by Ali Abbasi.