May 28, 2023
Photo: frame from the film “Killer” Sacred Spider “/YouTybe/In Ranking

On May 11, the film directed by Ali Abbasi, The Holy Spider Killer, about a serial killer, will be released in theaters on May 11. The Fontanka columnist watched the Cannes-awarded film and explains why the Iranian authorities condemned it, likening it to Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” and promising punishment to the crew members.

In 2000, in Iranian Mashhad (this is the second largest city in the country, sacred to Shiite Muslims), a series of crimes begins: someone kills prostitutes. New victims, strangled with their own handkerchiefs, appear literally every week. Rumor has given the killer the nickname “Holy Spider” because he usually wrapped the bodies in carpets, like a web. The police are inactive – and not for lack of evidence, but in large part because prostituted women are absolutely despised in Iranian society. Everything goes on in a terrible way – until the journalist Areza Rahimi arrives from Tehran to Mehshed to prepare a material about the investigation. Realizing that things are not moving forward, she is even ready to become a bait for the Spider – just to catch him.

Ali Abbasi’s The Holy Spider Killer is based on a true story. Indeed, in 2000-2001 in Mashhad, Said Khanaei, a construction worker, a good family man, and a war veteran, killed sixteen women. At the trial, he did not even think of repenting, because, according to him, he cleansed the city of harlots, and regretted that he had not dealt with another hundred or two. The conservative public glorified him as a hero. The authorities still sentenced Chanaei to death, but the execution, contrary to custom, was not carried out in public – in order to avoid unrest. Everything, in a word, was as shown.

Only Areza Rahimi, played by actress Zara Amir Ebrahimi (who won Best Actress at Cannes) did not actually exist; it was invented by Abbasi as a conductor of the viewer to the world of Iranian society. It is especially important, of course, that she is a woman: from the very first shots it is clear how many conventions and restrictions entangle both her and any other Iranian woman. At every step she is reminded to cover her hair better. At the Mehshed hotel, the administrator at first refuses to check in, even despite the reservation: how can it be, an unmarried girl will live alone. Only after checking is she reluctantly given the keys.

In the room, Rahimi immediately takes off her veil and finds herself in jeans and even, oh horror, with a pedicure. Rahimi – sharp, decisive, aggressive; she, as it were, is ready in advance to defend herself against any man, not like from the “Spider”. From the reservations scattered throughout the film, it becomes clear that her past has taught her to such a fighting stance. And from the plot of the picture itself – that such readiness is vital. The patriarchal society itself becomes its potential enemy and battlefield; even an intelligent mullah, even a seemingly friendly journalist colleague. Anyone can be condemned here, and not even necessarily for her personal actions: if you were harassed, in Iran this is in itself a reason to suspect you of “debauchery”. Yes, but not only in Iran.

Along with the active Rahimi, the film, with an almost documentary impassivity, also shows other women trying to survive: unfortunate future victims, who are called “lecherous”, “drug addicts”. Or the wife of Hanaei himself, who believes that all this does not concern her, because “decent women do not wander alone along the street and do not seduce other people’s husbands.” Or the mother of one of the victims, exclaiming in her hearts: do you want us to admit that the daughter is a prostitute? I’m glad she’s dead. It’s such a terrible life that death is better.

The cameraman Nadim Carlsen also impassively captures the family life of “Spider”: from the very beginning of the film, it is not at all hidden from the viewer who the killer is. And this reinforces the feeling that everything is happening almost in plain sight. Here Said (actor Mehdi Bedzhestani) works at a construction site, here he plays with his daughter, here he hugs his wife, but he rents another prostitute, takes her to him while her relatives are not at home; pounces from behind and strangles; wraps another corpse in a carpet and throws it into the wasteland. In addition, he also calls the local newspaper, wanting to become famous. After all, it’s not for nothing that he “cleanses the city”?

“It would be better if the war didn’t end at all,” he complains to a front-line friend. Why did God create me? Someone became a martyr, and I returned because I’m worthless? .. “

His wish is granted: the war never ends for him.

All this is very similar to what happened more than a hundred years ago in London; with the story of Jack the Ripper. He also killed prostitutes and wrote boastful letters to the public. True, his crimes had no religious overtones. But the oddities surrounding the investigation and the slowness of the police gave rise to conspiracy theories that Jack was almost a member of the royal house – or at least a prominent dignitary who was covered by the authorities. In Alan Moore’s wonderful and darkest graphic novel From Hell – and in its not so successful film adaptation with Johnny Depp – the madness of the Ripper is reconstructed – as the “orderly” of London, ridding the city of female depravity, and moreover, asserting male dominion over the world.

In the last third of Holy Spider, with the perpetrator already under arrest, the film unfolds in perhaps a more macabre way than any of the murder scenes before. The main claim of the authorities to Said is not the deaths of women themselves, but that he arrogated to himself the right to violence. In addition, Said’s wife and son, his fellow soldiers and friends, and a huge crowd at the court walls calling him a hero – all this frightens the government; the murderer becomes almost a messiah and until the last moment, until the very loop, hopes for salvation.

There is no triumph, but the triumph of justice in this dark, hopeless picture is somehow not felt. Rahimi leaves for home – but other webs are stretched around: a totalitarian society, religious radicalism, conservative traditions – which choke no worse than the Holy Spider did.

Matvey Pirogov

Photo: frame from the film “Killer” Sacred Spider “/YouTybe/In Ranking

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