From a sociopolitical perspective, the third strand is especially fascinating. While there was a female reporter named Roya Karimi who covered the Spider Killer story—the name came from the supposition that he lured victims into his deadly web—Rahimi is Abbasi’s creation, and she’s a striking and memorable character, not just for her intrepid, methodical way of pursuing the story but also for her self-possessed way of dealing with the men she encounters. One is a reporter who shares information with her (he has tapes of the calls the killer made to him declaring his crimes and disclosing where the bodies could be found) and is collegial enough but also displeases her by revealing that he’s heard rumors about her problems with an editor in Tehran (according to her, she was fired for refusing his advances). Another male, an officer in charge of the case, can’t explain why the police have not a single clue six months into the killer’s spree, but offers to tell her more if she will date him. And then there’s cleric who brusquely rejects the killer’s claims of divine sanction but also seems more concerned with the negative image he assumes Rahimi’s stories will create.
In all of these interactions, we get a clear, multi-faceted picture of many obstacles and challenges that Iranian women face—the menace of serial killers of course being far less common than countless everyday slights. Abbasi’s depiction of this reality has nothing polemical about it; it’s persuasive precisely because it’s so realistic and nuanced.
Likewise, the film doesn’t portray Saeed as some kind of drooling monster. He’s obsessed with his terrible work, of course, but pursues it with a craftsman’s calm deliberateness. When his wife and three kids are off at her parents’, he goes on the prowl on his motorbike, finding a prostitute and taking her back to his apartment, then strangling her with her head scarf (a bitter irony that needs no emphasis). He seems “normal” most of the time apart from his crimes, though there’s evidence of war’s PTSD when he blows up at his son during a family outing.
Though this story has inherent fascinations akin to those of other such tales—and let’s face it, we’re currently inundated with true-crime stories of every description—“Holy Spider” succeeds as a work of art because of Abbasi’s great skills as a filmmaker (his previous film was the endlessly creepy “Border,” which received wide international distribution). Moment to moment, scene after scene, both dramatically and stylistically, the film impresses with its careful control, attention to detail and unerring subtlety. And the performances Abbasi gets from Zar Amir Ebrahimi (she won Best Actress at Cannes) and Mehdi Bajestani are simply two of the most compelling and finely realized that I’ve seen this year.