Cannes 2022: Ali Abbasi’s Disturbing Iranian Thriller ‘Holy Spider’
by Alex Billington
May 28, 2022
Religion needs a reckoning. It’s time to question whether it’s really good for humanity or not. Part of this discussion involves looking at the irrefutable truth about how horrible religion can be. Walking in to see Ali Abbasi’s new film Holy Spider at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, I had no idea what I was about to watch. I’m a big fan of Abbasi’s last Cannes hit, a wacky weird Swedish trolls fantasy romance called Border. But this film is nothing like that one. Holy Spider is a based-on-a-true-story serial killer thriller that has earned comparisons to David Fincher in it’s brutally realistic, unflinching look at murder in modern times. It’s an unsettling film that follows both the murderer and the journalist trying to investigate – and stop him since apparently no one else will – this deranged man. But he’s devout, and his neighbors like him – even these killings won’t change their mind because he’s doing it in honor of God. That should make everyone queasy.
At the start of Holy Spider, we’re introduced to a man named Saeed, played by Mehdi Bajestani, who lives and works in the “holy city” of Mashhad in Iran. He’s a vicious and demented killer, and the film puts us right in his mind as we watch him track, abduct, and murder a prostitute working on the streets of Mashhad. The narrative soon introduces us to Rahimi, played by Zar Amir-Ebrahimi, who has arrived from Tehran in order to help investigate these killings for a local newspaper. It turns out that Saeed’s goal is to murder and rid Mashhad of prostitutes, as he considers them dirty and disgraceful, and God would want him to do this. It’s his duty as a faithful believer to do God’s bidding and rid the world of these sex workers. It doesn’t matter your views on sex work, anyone can see this is so wrong and so fucked up. There are moments where it’s clear he’s a classic serial killer, letting his rage out when he murders. Yet he has supporters, and the film is clear in showing that. This is what religion has maintained – primitive morality masquerading as “faith”.
It’s also clear that Holy Spider is a deeply anti-religious film. It never says this outright, but it never needs to, because it’s obviously portrayed by telling most of the story from the perspective of the killer. It seems Abbasi wants us to understand how this is possible and how this kind of person can exist, can be supported, and never possibly believe that they are doing any wrong. That’s ultimately what Holy Spider seems to be – a film about how religion often is horrible and yet it’s accepted as totally normal, it’s accept as the “holy” and “righteous” way of being. Some of the craziest WTF moments in the film involve showing how Saeed is a “family man” who cares about his kids, and tries to make sure they don’t litter, and all of these simple do-good things. He is a “good guy” in the eyes of his family, even his wife supports him; it doesn’t matter that he is a killer, everything he does is seen as morally good in the eyes of the devout. I would even go so far as to say this isn’t only with Islam, all religions have problems like this that no one wants to really talk about.
In relation to cinema, one other question that Holy Spider brings up is whether or not shocking audiences by showing murder directly on screen can actually be an impactful method of storytelling. This is different from everything in the horror genre, because this is social realism. And it’s a true story! Which is even more insane! I can say that the film has definitely made people talk about it in Cannes, but can that conversation actually convert regular viewers? Will it change anyone’s minds? It’s extraordinarily unsettling in the way he bluntly shows how religion works to justify murders, that’s what makes it a good film. I just seriously hope it can bring about real change, and wake people up to the bad sides of religion that, yes, are still prevalent in many places around the world. It may be a distinctly Iranian film, exemplifying the growing excellence of Iranian cinema, but it’s also a story that can be reflected universally. Maybe it’s time to question God’s will.