Directed by Ali Abbasi, “Holy Spider” is a Persian-language film that presents a fictional retelling of real events that took place in Iran’s Mashhad. Over a span of around eleven months in 2000-2001, a man by the name of Saeed Hanaei lured and killed sixteen women who worked as sex workers and small-time drug peddlers on the streets of the city. Director Abbasi has been quite clear that his intention with this film is not just to retell the gruesome story of the serial killer but to focus more on the misogyny that existed, or still exists, in Iranian society. This is evident throughout the film, as “Holy Spider” makes sure to include religious fanaticism and sexist support for a murderer all along the way. Overall, “Holy Spider” is a great watching experience, with laudable visuals and moments at times through its precise unraveling.
‘Holy Spider’ Plot Summary: What Is The Film About?
A young woman is seen dressing up for a night of work in the Iranian city of Mashhad, and she does not look keen to go out. The woman, named Somayeh, has a young daughter to look after and probably pushed by this responsibility itself, she steps out of her house and stands on the corner of a street waiting for any customers. As a sex worker in a society where any woman going out to work or stepping out, in general, is frowned upon, the masochist dirty talk of her customer for the night does not bother Somayeh at all. After leaving the house and standing on the street again to continue the night, the woman is approached by a man on a motorbike. Somayeh tries to shoo off the man at first, but his persistence and showing off of banknotes the woman is in such desperate need of makes her agree. She climbs onto the motorbike and gets driven to the house of the man which is located deep inside dark and semi-lit alleys. After a point, Somayeh has a bad feeling about the whole thing; she wants to leave the place and tells the man about it too. The man at first acts friendly, telling her that there would be no problem at all, but his nature totally changes in a jiffy. Seeing Somayeh leave down the stairs, the man rushes towards her, grasps her neck with his bare hands, and then chokes the woman to death with her own scarf. He then dumps the body in a vacant place near the city and continues to do the same with multiple other women. This man is Saeed Azeemi, the serial killer who ended the lives of sixteen women over a span of just eleven months.
Around six or seven months after the breakout of Saeed’s murderous acts, the media have termed him the “Spider Killer,” for he entraps his victims just like a spider before ending them. The police still have no idea about who this dangerous criminal is, and amidst such times, a journalist named Arezoo Rahimi comes to Mashhad from Tehran to write a report into the crimes of the misogynist serial killer. It is her efforts and Saeed’s criminal intent that become central in “Holy Spider.”
How Does Arezoo Find Out The Killer’s Identity?
Arezoo Rahemi’s struggle to find out more about the serial killer and the setbacks she has to face basically sums up the position of a woman in society during the early 2000s. The only reason it might not exactly resemble the present would be that the present is even worse. Without getting into the specifics, the society and culture that Abbasi presents in “Holy Spider,” in full resemblance to reality, is supremely harsh on women. In Arezoo’s very first scene, after she gets off a bus that has brought her to Mashhad, the woman checks in at a hotel where she has reserved a room. However, the hotel clerk is unwilling to let her enter because she is a single, unmarried woman wanting to stay in the room, implying that a single woman without any male guardian figure should not stay outside her home. Arezoo does not want to flash her power at first, quite obviously, as she is being denied a basic service, but when things get out of hand, she shows the clerk her press card. The fact that she is a journalist forces the clerk to turn his decision around, but he immediately remarks about how Arezoo should cover more of her hair and head with her scarf. This categorical and sexist behavior is something that Arezoo, unfortunately, faces throughout the film, and it becomes a part of her character in a positive sense. The only contact she seems to have in Mashhad to start her work is a man named Sharifi, who works as the editorial director of the criminal section of the local newspaper.
Sharifi is mostly restrained and well-behaved with Arezoo, except for the one time when he recalls having heard things about Arezoo’s firing from a job in Tehran. Although Sharifi does not seem to have any wrong intentions in mentioning it, the way he presents it irks Arezoo, for this story too is laden with unfair sexism. Arezoo’s boss at her previous workplace wanted to get romantically involved with her, and when she denied his approach, the woman was fired from her job. Not only did Arezoo lose her job, but the boss also spread a false story that it had to be done because she had gotten romantically involved with him, which is against the rules of the workplace. The journalist now tries to set all this aside and concentrate on her work but is once again faced with similar behavior when she meets with the police officer looking into the case. The officer, a man proud of his work and stature, asks Arezoo out at one instance and has the most inappropriate and borderline abusive reaction when she turns him down.
In her pursuit of the serial killer, Arezoo is driven by a similar concern for all women in this society, for she knows that nobody else will probably care much about this man on a killing rampage. It is important to note here that although “Holy Spider” is based on real events and characters, the character of Arezoo is actually completely fictional, and she is the creative addition of Abbasi. It is also to be mentioned that this addition is simply marvelous, and it is Arezoo (a brilliant Zar Amir Ebrahimi) who makes the film all the more layered and noteworthy. The journalist starts studying the character of this murderer through the telephone calls that he makes to Sharifi after each of his murders, boastfully informing him and the world about where to find the body of his latest victim. She focuses on the common threads that tie all the crimes together—that all the women were sex workers, and most of them were drug peddlers and abusers as well, and the fact that all of them had been strangled with their own scarves. Arezoo and Sharifi understand soon after the murders start that this has a religious angle to it. This is why Sharifi had been wary of how he was reporting it, for there were direct orders from his superiors to not present religious crimes in too bad a light. After numerous murders by the Spider Killer, though, Arezoo and Sharifi go to meet with one of the religious leaders, asking for support from him to find out about this murderer. To their surprise, the leader grants them his best wishes and support but is also direct about how he does not trust Arezoo to report the crimes in an exact manner that they were. At the time, there was political pressure on these leaders to not tolerate such crimes against the law, but the social pressure of being moralistic also never left the scene.
Next, Arezoo decides to meet up with the women who indulge in prostitution on the streets every night, but none of them are willing to open up to her. These women, of course, have their own problems and involvements in life; most of them stay drugged for long hours of the day to endure the humiliation of their profession, and Arezoo cannot gain their trust. She does help out a woman named Soghra when the latter is sick at a café and befriends her at first, but questions about drugs, and the murderer immediately drive her away. Within a few days, though, Soghra turns up as a corpse, as the latest victim of the Spider Killer. This not only moves Arezoo beyond measure but also, on the other side, ensures that she has been looking in the right place. With all limits having passed by this time, and the realization that although everyone was assuring her of finding the killer, nobody actually cared much, Arezoo decides to take things into her own hands. She finally poses as a sex worker on the streets in order to get picked up by the Spider Killer, and that is exactly what happens. But once inside the killer’s house, Arezoo remains strong-willed and somehow manages to escape the place. It is her report to the police the following day that ultimately gets Saeed arrested, for she was the only woman to have survived the man’s killer grasp.
Who Was Saeed? Why Was He Committing The Murders?
Saeed’s unwavering motivation behind the sixteen murders that he commits as well as his life’s gradual progression, is religion. He is devoted to doing God’s work and to protecting the purity of the holy city of Mashhad, the resting place of his beloved, almost paternal saint, Imam Reza. All that he does with utmost passion, he does in the name of this saint. It is not that Saeed’s devotion has any fanatical roughness to it otherwise. The man is extremely gentle looking and well-behaved, one who is easy to blend in with crowds. He has a family of his own, consisting of his wife Fatemah, a teenager son named Ali, and two young daughters. After having served in the Iran-Iraq war for close to two years, Saeed works as a construction worker during the night. It is only in his very personal and secretive self that the man rears a beast inside his mind and self, one that does not see women selling their bodies as worthy of being alive. Saeed does seem to have a burning rage inside him, one that is possibly linked with his time in the war and that often takes over when he is strangling his victims out of life. In one instance, this rage seems to come out in front of his family when Ali accidentally kicks a ball on his head during a picnic, but he also brings it under control. Other than these few short glimpses, Saeed’s usual temperament and his daily activities do not make him look like a murderer at all. This is also the reason why “Holy Spider” shows so much of his normal daily activities because, at some point, Saeed was not very different from a typical man working hard to keep his family fed and finding solace in God.
Ali Abbasi’s point in this film is to bring into conversation the very society and mindset that ensure the birth of such serial killers. Looking into society gives a very easy answer as to why one would commit such crimes, as does “Holy Spider” immediately after Saeed is arrested by the police. There is huge public outrage and uproar supporting the criminal, for a large section of the common society is sure that the man is indeed doing holy work. Sex workers, and drug-addicted women, they believed, did not deserve to be alive, that too in their holy land. Saeed’s son Ali also, unfortunately, falls prey to this, as he starts to look up to his father as a heroic figure. In interviews with him by Arezoo, the boy even says that many of his neighbors and friends had encouraged him to take on the role of Saeed after his capture. The teenager also states that he firmly believes there would be more Saeeds in society who would purge all sins and take them all toward religious divinity. What is sad is that Ali does not even fully understand what he is saying and is instead taken over by the frenzy that religion seems to spread over everyone else. In the interview with Arezoo, which is shown at the very end of the film, Ali reenacts the way in which his father used to murder the women, and he even uses his young sister to be a part of the demonstration. While the boy’s face shows excitement and pride to some extent, the wringing of his toes and fingers probably suggests that he feels whatever he is saying is something extremely wrong. Yet, the shroud of religion clouds his natural values and instinctive morals.
‘Holy Spider’ Ending Explained: What Happens To Saeed And Arezoo At The End?
In the last minutes of the film, the main focus becomes whether Saeed would ultimately be punished by the law or not. Everyone at the time knew that the arrest of the murderer was made only because there was political pressure due to upcoming elections. However, there was also a general belief, which Arezoo herself also holds till the end, that Saeed would be ultimately left to flee or kept safe. The defense counsel for the man wants to present Saeed in court as having mental health issues, but Saeed refuses to accept this. In a rather dramatic manner, he tells everyone in court that he was in full control of his actions and that his only madness was his love for God and Imam Reza. In his private conversations, Saeed says that he was aware of how many people in society looked up to him and did not want to disappoint them by claiming to be a madman. It is clear that Saeed himself believed that he was doing the right thing because he was spurred on by a society that made him believe so. Thus, when his best friend Haji visits him in jail after his final sentence hearing and tells him that there is a grand plan in the works to let him escape the prison before his death penalty, Saeed is immensely relieved.
The man is extremely scared of death but is only spurred into his actions by religion and society. Ultimately though, no such grand plan was carried out, and Saeed Azeemi was very much hanged to death in prison. The exact reason for this change of plans or for Haji’s false promise is not made clear, but it seems like Arezoo had been the one to ensure that the man was brought to justice. She and Sharifi constantly stay put in prison, asking to witness the hanging, to ensure that no escape plan could be played out. With her job at Mashhad now complete, Arezoo Rahimi boards a bus heading towards Tehran, and on her way, she watches the interview she had taken of Saeed’s son Ali, in which the boy expresses his pride for his father’s actions. “Holy Spider” ends with the sad realization that numerous other Saeeds have indeed been cropping up in society, spurred by blind beliefs and religious fanaticism.