Sometimes it hardly matters whether we know a story is based on truth or not. Watching Ali Abbasi’s thunderously damning Holy Spider, on the other hand, it drives a wedge into your mind knowing that a serial killer really did terrorize the Iranian holy city of Mashhad in the early 2000s, that he killed 16 street prostitutes, that there were police who conspired to help him escape and that there were people in Iran — a lot of people, he keeps assuring his family — who were on the murderer’s side. He was doing God’s work.
Swedish-Iranian director Ali Abbasi’s last film was the unclassifiable Border, a fable about outcasts and aliens in which an unfortunately grotesque Swedish customs official turns out to be a troll. Border won the prize for the best film in Cannes sidebar section Un Certain Regard in 2018. Holy Spider is in the festival competition — nominally a step up from UCR’s ranks of newcomers and experimentalists — and is ostensibly a more conventional kind of film, a crime thriller in which a courageous, driven young female reporter (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi) unpacks the scandal nobody in power wants to touch. Reduced to one line, it sounds like a rerun of a dozen thrillers. Holy Spider never feels like a safe genre choice, however. Quite the opposite. It crackles and glistens with anger.
Rahimi arrives in Mashhad from Teheran, riding a bus filled with pilgrims. It is no surprise to see her life portrayed as an obstacle course of everyday: the hotel clerk who won’t give her the room she has booked because she has arrived without a husband, the strangers who tell her to cover more of her hair, the newspaper colleague who clumsily asks her about rumors about her sexual past, the way the police officers she interviews smirk as they ask about that past rather more directly. The woman clearly has a spine of steel. By the time she decides that the best way to reel in the killer would be to use her own body as bait, nothing she would be willing to do seems too outlandish.
We know who the killer is. Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani) is a builder and devoted family man, especially when indulging his adorable little daughter. True, he can be irascible. His pubescent son can feel the fists of righteous rage if he doesn’t watch out and, although he would be loath to admit it, he does find the business of finding and killing those filthy working women stressful. The ones who are junkies don’t fight back much, but some are stronger.
He kills them at home; conveniently, his wife takes the children to see their grandparents once a week. If he finds himself aroused by the struggle, he prays to Allah. Then he dumps the body somewhere local, calls the crime reporter on the local paper — who has recorded all their conversations, but never thought or been asked to hand these over to the police — and goes home, having cleaned up one more street corner.
At one point, Saeed estimates with a beatific smile that he would break the back of his mission if he killed 200 women; they just need to let him get on with it. His smugness with his own virtue is the most immediately revolting thing about him. Actually, correction. Saeed is a war veteran imprinted with propaganda about martyrdom and guilt that he survived; he isn’t necessarily sane. The worst thing about him is the fact that he collects fans. There are those — including Fatima, his wittering surrendered wife (Forouzan Jamshidnejad) — who are convinced he could never be convicted for what amounts to a jihad against sin.
Rahimi’s investigations lead her into dark alleys — actually shot in Jordan — and darker ways of life, often shot in deep shadows that give the film an occasional patina of film noir, with a surging score by Martin Dirkov exploited for full melodramatic impact as the murders keep coming.
Watching women being strangled is disturbing, obviously, but these scenes are stripped back to the basics, with bright, flat lighting: while you’re here, Abbasi seems to be saying, you might as well know the horrible truth. The greater truth, of course, is that the right-wing press, fundamentalist zealots and all their fellow-traveling misogynists who lionized Saeed and his dreadful acts — including his son, who we see vowing to continue his quest — are just 20 years older. What are they doing now?