Review: Holy Spider
by Marta Bałaga
- CANNES 2022: Ali Abbasi, the crazed Iranian-born genius behind the Un Certain Regard winner Border, delivers another masterful work, this time in the main competition
It might be an odd way to describe this dark, unsettling story, actually inspired by a real-life case, but Ali Abbasi never forgets that films – even ambitious and undoubtedly complex ones – should also be fun to watch.
His new thriller Holy Spider [+see also:
film profile], set in Iran and enlivening Cannes’ main competition, is engaging, terrifying and features two incredible performances – by Zar Amir Ebrahimi, who went from casting director to lead, and Mehdi Bajestani, as the killer of prostitutes who really thinks he is doing his holy city of Mashhad a favour. And what do you know? Some might even agree.
By choosing a female protagonist, a journalist who comes all the way from Tehran and is forced to fight just about every minute of her life, even when trying to book a hotel room, Abbasi shows a society that has already made up its mind. Apparently, violence can be forgiven if there is a “reason” for it, and you can’t blame a decent family man for trying to save his children from the presence of “corrupted” women.
What’s fantastic about Holy Spider is the fact that Abbasi actually shows them here. These women, not just anonymous victims, have different personalities, struggles and varying approaches to the profession that – in the eyes of many – has already rendered them “worthless”. Once again, and who knows if it will ever change, it’s females who are the source of all evil and must be discreetly disposed of. Not their brutal clients, not their accusers, not even their killers. It’s always their fault, and the streets must be purged of depravity.
There is something about this film that makes one feel utterly uncomfortable, but it’s not due to its violence – given the subject matter, Abbasi actually holds back, but still had to shoot his film in Jordan. It’s mostly because the way people react here, the way they dehumanise women quickly and easily, feels recognisable and it feels true. It doesn’t exactly uplift, even despite the strength and determination of its protagonist, but at least Abbasi exposes things that many would rather keep hidden or rotting away on the side of the road.
He is also taking a risk by showing a murderer who can be nice, who can be tender, who is not just some figure emerging from the shadows at night. There is a suggestion of PTSD here, of survivor’s guilt, perhaps. This man wants to be remembered as someone who was useful to society, and he sure wants attention. They always do, these killers, with their clues and their constant calls to the press. Also, the secret is not kept for too long – Abbasi is more interested in the whys and not so much in the whos. But somehow it doesn’t make this film any less exciting. It’s really getting to the point where, regardless of which direction this director is heading in, whether exploring the sex lives of trolls or the twisted excuses of serial killers, it would be dumb not to follow.
Holy Spider was produced by Denmark’s Profile Pictures and Germany’s One Two Films, in co-production with Nordisk Film Production (Sweden), Wild Bunch (France), Film i Väst (Sweden), Why Not Productions (France), ZDF/ARTE (Germany) and ARTE France Cinéma. Its sales have been entrusted to Wild Bunch International.
Photogallery 23/05/2022: Cannes 2022 - Holy Spider
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