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CIFF 2022: Exploring violent beliefs and morality in Holy Spider

By Amanda Wilson, October 20 2022

The joy of any film festival is the opportunity to be exposed to international films that offer various perspectives — whether they’re original scripts or readaptions of true events. The 2022 film Holy Spider by director Asghar Farhadi takes the latter approach by retelling the tragic true story of 16 women who were murdered from 2000-2001 in Mashhad, Iran.

Holy Spider itself is an evocative, dark and compelling neo-noir style undertaking of a semi-fictionalised event that was extremely divisive in early 2000’s Iran. The fictionalized portion stems from the incorporation of a female journalist — not only covering the crimes, but actively playing a part to stop the murders as well. The primary inclusion of a female journalist is vital in illustrating the perspective that Farhadi is attempting to achieve — as ultimately this is a story about women, and their treatment as well as expectations in contemporary Iran.

In the true events, serial killer Saeed Hanaei had targeted female sex workers and drug addicts. This was his mission of “cleansing” the holy city of Mashhad. Although the events had taken place over 20 years ago, the sentiment rings just as true and loudly today, as Iran is currently facing protests over the killing of Mahsa Amini — who was arrested for not wearing a hijab. Within the film, journalist Rahimi (Zahra Amir Ebrahimi) is criticised for not covering her hair enough, interjecting herself where women are not typically welcome or has become a target for sexual harassment. 

Along with Rahimi’s perspective, the film surfacely explores the lives of Hanaei’s victims. The first sequence violently and explicitly illustrates the struggles of Iranian sex workers who may use addiction to numb themselves from a reality that demonizes them. One of the driving plot points of Holy Spider is the freedom and sexuality surrounding women — or how this is dictated by men. The film makes some efforts to humanise the victims of Hanaei by portraying them as mothers or daughters. However, it feels insufficient as an effort to portray this vulnerable population as women rather than plot points. 

It seems that the largest cause of this is due to the women being reduced to objects that violence is inflicted upon. This is certainly felt through the point-of-view (POV) sequences of Hanaei drawing out his crimes, which also occupies a significant amount of screentime. This severely runs the risk of diminishing the film to its shock factor — when there is a gaping need to not only do justice to the women who had lost their lives but also to understand that portraying violence upon women comes with the responsibility of conveying these scenes with purpose.

On the other hand, Holy Spider is religious fanaticism. As immoral as Hanaei’s crimes may have been, the reality is that he had a large following — to some he is a martyr. Hanaei’s cult following cannot be ignored, and their support reveals more about Iranian society than Hanaei’s crimes. Farhadi had depicted Hanaei’s domestic life as a family man with a dark secret, but his devotion to Allah is his reasoning. However, the mundanity of being the “ideal” husband is a bleak cover upon vicious societal misogyny. This jarring dichotomy exemplifies how humanity is measured amongst society, and who is deserving of life and power. This critical theme returns throughout the film and asks — how are young Iranian boys and girls being conditioned against each other?

Holy Spider is a film that ambitiously takes on an unfortunate history that has persisted into current contemporary issues. Farhadi effectively brings the audience an intimate perspective into the morally corrupt side of the human condition that is challenging to face, whether it be reality or fiction. Holy Spider is certainly not an easy watch, but it effectively showcases the experiences of those facing misogyny and surviving under oppressive regimes.

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