by Andrew Wyatt on Nov 8, 2022

Throughout the 31st Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at The Lens will be spotlighting some of their favorite feature films on this year’s festival slate. Our critics have picked can’t-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic treasures that might have otherwise been overlooked – just in time for you to claim your tickets.

Director Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider opens with a scene that will be familiar to American aficionados of urban crime stories: a sex worker prepares for a night on the mean streets of a restless city. She shrugs into her bra, applies makeup, and kisses her sleeping child. Unexpectedly, she also tugs a hijab loosely over her hair. It is 2001, and this is the pilgrim city of Mashhad, Iran, where all women – even prostitutes – are wary of drawing unnecessary attention from the religious police. This particular woman’s hard-won guardedness is, unfortunately, not enough to save her from a horrific fate: By the night’s end, she will go home with an unassuming, middle-age client who will strangle her to death with her own knotted hijab.

Consistent with this grisly prelude, the whole of Abbasi’s film is a tough sit, an unsparing true-crime drama about the “Spider Killer” who preyed on Mashhad’s sex workers at the dawn of the new millennium. The feature’s dialogue is in Farsi and most of its actors are Iranian, but it was shot in the Arab-majority nation of Jordan. This gives the Tehran-born Danish filmmaker the leeway to present this bleak story in an unvarnished state, depicting Iran’s underground sex and drug culture – and reckoning with the nation's theocratic patriarchy – in a manner that government censors would never permit.

Our guide through this perilous world is Rahimi (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi), a Mashhad-born investigative journalist who returns home to get to the bottom of the Spider Killer story. Rahimi is an iconoclast by both nature and choice: a single, modern woman who doggedly wriggles her way into male-controlled spheres such as the press, police, and courts. When conferring with local reporter Sharifi (Arash Ashtiani), she is astonished to learn that authorities still have no leads after nine deaths. This, despite the fact that the victims were all dumped unceremoniously in the same stretch of scrubby wasteland on the outskirts of the city. (The Spider even has a habit of calling the press, Zodiac-style, to tip them off.) Given that the slain women were all “morally corrupt,” however, the stench of indifference from the local police and clerics is predictably overpowering.

Much like The Vanishing (1988), Holy Spider does not play coy with its killer. It follows the day-to-day routine of construction worker Saeed Hanaei (Mehdi Bajestani) as closely as it tracks Rahimi’s investigation. Survivor’s guilt from his service in the Iran-Iraq War has catalyzed a fanatical religiosity in Saeed, compelling him to undertake a one-man fatwa to cleanse the city of the whores whose presence he believes sullies Mashhad’s holy shrine. Saeed’s young wife, Fatima (Forouzan Jamshidnejad), and their three children have no inkling that he is strangling prostitutes in their living room on a semi-regular basis, but even they are aware of his growing anxiousness and volatility.

Notwithstanding its grim subject, Holy Spider mostly eschews true-crime orthodoxy thanks to Abbasi’s moody, jittery direction and Amir-Ebrahimi’s marvelous, finely tuned performance. The film’s sharpest criticisms of Iranian culture and governance are expressed through its lead actress, whose character navigates a minefield of patriarchal indignities with a well-honed mix of obstinacy, cunning, and foolish bravery. Whereas most crime thrillers would end with the discovery and arrest of the perpetrator, Holy Spider shares Rahimi’s commitment to see a story through to its end. Saeed’s capture therefore marks the film’s midpoint rather than its conclusion, and the feature’s second half dramatizes the case’s confounding legal and political turns.

Disconcertingly, popular support for Saeed’s crimes seems widespread in Mashhad, where local shop owners donate free goods to the accused killer’s family and wink approvingly at his adolescent son Ali (Mesbah Taleb). Saeed is frank and unrepentant on the stand, and Rahimi is convinced that the political and religious authorities are scrambling to wash their hands of a killer whose fanatical hatred of women awkwardly echoes their own policies. Indeed, the aspect of Holy Spider that truly rattles is not its depiction of graphic violence, but rather its conviction – underlined in a hauntingly perverse final scene – that misogyny acts as a fearsome and insidious cultural virus, infecting generation after generation with terrifying ease.

Holy Spider screens at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema at 7:00 p.m. on Thurs. Nov 10.