The Holy Ideology and its misogynistic treatise: Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider
Azadeh M. Isaksen (b. 1980) holds a Ph.D. in Nordic literature and film adaptation from UiT-The Arctic University of Norway. Studying totalitarian regimes and war in literature and film is one of her major interests.
In front of a mirror, a woman smokes a cigarette and fixes her hair. Her topless breasts are reflected in the mirror, but her bruised back and shoulders are in direct view of the camera. Somayeh (Alice Rahimi) lives in a shabby and poorly maintained house. She kisses her sleeping daughter goodbye, whispering that she will be home when the little girl awakens. Yet, she fails to appear; Holy Spider’s web entangles her.
Based on a true story, Holy Spider is about a famous murder spree between 2000 and 2001, when Saeed Hanaei murdered sixteen sex workers in one of Iran’s largest cities, Mashhad, the capital of Razavi Khorasan Province. The city considered holy because of the mausoleum of Imam Reza, the eighth Imam of the Twelver Shias. In the film, Arezou Rahimi (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi), a fictional journalist, uncovers the identity of the serial killer (Mehdi Bajestani).
Iranian filmmaker Ali Abbasi, living in Denmark, directed the film with Afshin Kamran Bahrami and Jonas Wagner collaborating on the script. Holy Spider portrays threats and terrors rising from “holy” ideologies with their claims of supremacy. It portrays a narcissistic narrative about a hegemonic ideology that ensures its persistence by masquerading as holy, whereas, in truth, it threatens humankind.
The Self-Referential Paradoxes
The film’s opening focuses on a woman, Somayeh (Alice Rahimi), and the last night of her life. It ends with a scene depicting the killer throwing Somayeh’s body in a remote area of the city. The tone of the film is established in this sequence, and is kept all the way through. It introduces a victim type and a “virtuous” villain, and presents the crime story concisely by showing key plot points, such as the murderer’s killing style. Furthermore, it is embellished with aesthetic elements, motifs, and symbols that contribute to the story’s overall theme.
Somayeh’s primary source of income is providing sexual services in Mashhad. Although she maintains a conservative appearance in her neighborhood, a man blatantly stares at her while she walks through the slum where she lives. She is captured in a mirror twice – in the first scene at home, and later applying makeup in a public restroom, where a conservative religious woman gives her a disturbing stare.
These reflections of Somayeh in the mirrors, represents more than just bare breasts and a make-up-covered face. The story’s truth is revealed beyond the mirrors reflecting her; it is where the audience sees the traces of distress and pain in a predatory, misogynistic society.
Canadian academic Linda Hutcheon, who specializes in literary theory and criticism, in her book, Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013), extends her description of mise en abyme as a “thematizing narrative artifice” or a narrative artifact with a narcissistic function that transcends the fictional zone(s); which usually provides commentary on the text itself (p. 54, 55). Somayeh’s mirror images play into misconceptions about women in Islamic society without considering the pains and problems they carry on their shoulders. Somayeh appears to be a believer in her own way, as she salutes the shrine of Imam Reza before seeking out her customers. Saeed views himself as a faithful and pious agent fighting the vice caused by corrupt women like her.
Somayeh serves two men that night before falling victim to Saeed’s scheme. The first is a wealthy man whose house is decorated with calligraphic frames depicting Allah and Muhammad next to a framed testament that introduces him as the world’s largest exporter of saffron1, one of the world’s most expensive spices. In the second man’s case, he fails to pay her the agreed price and instead throws her out of his vehicle to avoid getting into trouble with the morality police. Theocratic exploitation has ensnared this young woman.
By juxtaposing opposing concepts for each character, the whole opening confronts the audience with complex characters and, perhaps, their default understanding of such people in real life. Holy Spider places women’s reality and their mirrored images within a society dominated by misogynistic theocracy.
Holy and religious suffocating codes
As a Basiji2, Saeed volunteered to serve on the front line during the Iran-Iraq war (1980–88). The first visual presentation of his home is the photos of him hanging on the wall from his time in the war. As any Basiji would wish for martyrdom, Saeed expresses regret to his friend for not being granted such an honor. He is consciously seeking a sacred purpose for his existence. Therefore, the man’s secret “sacred” mission is to eradicate sex workers in his city. He intends to expand his mission to cover the entire country, once he has cleaned up Mashhad. In his view, he is not a killer spider but a Jihadist who is “waging a Jihad against vice”; he views it as his duty to ensure that the martyrs’ blood does not go to waste. Ironically, his jihad targets the most vulnerable members of society within the theocratic regime, who suffer from gender and conditional discrimination.
It is worth mentioning that phrases such as “not letting martyr’s blood go to waste” are one of the phrases propagated by the Islamic regime to control the hijab and veiling of Iranian women. In the eyes of radical Muslims and the morality police, even the slightest expression of femininity is an insult to the sacrifices of the brave martyrs who fought for eight years on the front lines in defense of their values and beliefs. According to the regime, the chador represents an ideal hijab, while inadequate veiling constitutes a bad hijab, and no veiling is prohibited. A mandatory dress code for women and the promotion of the chador as an ideal veil are examples of absolute control over women as provocative objects. Based on their approach towards the hijab, women appear to have power over men, but this power is only sexual and seductive. Therefore, their sexual power must be confiscated through the hijab.
Literally and symbolically, the murderer has his trademark: he ties a double knot on the victim’s scarf and strangles them with it; he then wraps the dead victim in a black chador as a shroud before throwing the body out of the city. A mandatory dress code, scarf, and the ideal hijab, a black chador, are symbols of oppression and covert corruption. In the film’s intro, Saeed gives Somayeh a chador before allowing her entry into his building, explaining that he does this to prevent neighbors from noticing her.
By mandating the hijab, state laws create a form of female social homogeneity that serves the interests of male power-seekers within the system. In the context of compulsory social uniformity, Saeed claims he identifies corrupt individuals and only targets them. As shown allegorically through an apple that one of the victims craves, perhaps due to her pregnancy, he is incapable of distinguishing good from evil. It is at this point that Saeed murders her.
Rather than being an individual murderer, Saeed represents his ideology and network as a whole; the film’s first killing shows this visually in its last scene. Somayeh’s night sequence ends with the villain riding a motorbike home after dumping her dead body outside the city. A close-up of his hand is shown, with a carnelian ring.3 As the camera zooms out and ascends, it captures the road beneath, then an aerial view of the entire city with the film’s title, Holy Spider, written in Islamic calligraphy, ironically, since it refers to its ideology. Moving from the carnelian ring to the entire city implies the source of this man’s brutality; it suggests that higher powers are involved in facilitating such operations.
In her report, Arezou Rahimi, the journalist, concludes that the shadow cast by the spider killer is growing more extensive over time; this is, however, possible only if a heinous holy power looms over the nation. The presence of a visual motif, the carnelian ring, on the hands of Saeed and the official and judicial characters allows us to understand that they are all linked together like the web of the leading holy spider. Saeed and the supporting characters create the network of the supreme spider.
Throughout the film, the audience sees how predatory males from different social classes exploit women in a patriarchal religious system; this applies to more than just the specific type of women. Several times in the film, Arezou is controlled within the theocratic system. First, the audience sees that she has a rough time gaining access to her booked hotel room only because she is a single woman. Later, an embedded narrative within the film reveals that her previous employer had harassed her; the judge (Nima Akbarpour) uses this as her Achilles’ heel to prevent her from bringing disrepute to Islamic values. She is then subtly offended by the crime reporter, Sharifi (Arash Ashtiani) when he asks Arezou about the rumors surrounding her. In her hotel room, the police officer in charge harasses her verbally and physically by pressing her down and calling her a fallen woman who smokes cigarettes with any man. He threatens her, to whom she would complain since his occupation is law enforcement. Finally, Saeed confronts her, telling her that if she had not been lucky, her body would at this point have been a stinking corpse.
All these men wear a carnelian ring. Although the crime reporter, Sharifi, seemingly is on the right path with his beliefs, he refuses to report all the details about the killer. His inadequate reporting about the killer is in the interest of preserving Islamic values within the theocratic regime. Ground-level shots of the officer in charge displaying his dirty shoes as his first appearance in the film underscore the corrupt power supporting the case. Even though the “holy spider” seems to refer to Saeed at first glance, the term has a broader meaning than him; it refers to the dominant ideology governing society.
The show of holy heroism
In addition to being a perpetrator, Saeed is also a victim. He is entangled in the hegemony of the Islamic religion, its fundamental values, and its political strategy of imposing a homogeneous society.
One of the main features of the theocratic regime is its media dominance which has enmeshed its citizens, such as Saeed. In three scenes, he is watching religious programs in front of the television. During the first scene, we see pilgrims visiting Imam Reza’s holy shrine; during the second, an Islamic historical drama based on Imam Reza’s life, entitled Reign of love; and in the third, a religious education program by a cleric named Mohsin Qara’ati. The cleric has propagated religion for many years on the regime’s broadcasts.
These mise en abymes display a more extended reflection of a hegemonic ideal of life with which followers measure their self-importance and worth. Therefore, a false hero, Saeed, declares himself to be a man of God who purges the streets of corruption.
For Saeed, receiving media attention for his “heroic” Jihad is equally essential. His first move after committing a crime is to call a crime reporter with suggestions on what to write and how to write it; he then looks for his news on the front page of the newspapers. As a warning to society, he intends to convey a message regarding respect for Islamic values. As he puts it, he is “crazy about cleansing the world of corruption.”
Before viewing Saeed in prison, the camera lens provides an aesthetic representation of Saeed’s life-like prison by capturing him inside the shrine. The angle at which the camera frames his face behind the holy shrine suggests that he is ideologically imprisoned. There is no indication that Saeed is remorseful for his criminal actions during his imprisonment and subsequent trials. The feeling of cleansing is pleasant to him, and he believes that the invisible hand of God will work to free him from this prison.
A shot of him alone in his cell is shown, during which the sound of the azan – the Islamic call to prayer – can be heard. He stands up and stretches his hand out of the bars of the cell’s window. As well as showing his hand from his perspective, the camera also shows it from an outside perspective. It appears that there is no rain from the outside; however, it is raining in the POV shot. To him, this indicates that God is pleased with him and his actions, so he offers the rain to operate wudu [ablutionالوضوء] for prayer.4 The camera then frames him praying.
Saeed’s wife, Fatima (Forouzan Jamshidnejad), repeatedly supports her husband’s criminal activities in front of their son. Even though their son, Ali (Mesbah Taleb), is intuitively aware of the criminal acts, he is subjected to brainwashing in the aftermath of his father’s arrest. Even though his mother appears to be the one who is best able to protect him from harm, she is the one who instilled the most robust sense of misogyny in his mind. As a response to Ali’s first question about his father’s absence, Fatima assures him that his father has committed no crimes; however, he is concerned about some corrupt women. After that, Ali receives praise for his father’s bravery from a shopkeeper, his father’s friend, and those chanting for Saeed’s release. Openly, Saeed’s family is supported by his network from the Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans Affairs and the hardliners.
As far as Saeed’s wife is concerned, she does not consider him a criminal but wonders why he should play the hero role. In light of Saeed’s unwillingness to accept that he has a mental illness, the court fails to acquit him on this basis. The Quran and Islam are, instead, the sources Saeed invokes to defend his actions. Thus, for the regime’s political expediency, there is no other option but his execution; however, for a win-win situation to emerge, Saeed must continue to play the role of a hero. He should be sent to his gallows in a hero’s role so as not to erode the Islamic values that permeate the nation.
Despite the expert witness’ request to sentence the accused to the maximum penalty, he tells Saeed secretly in his cell that both the judge and he must play along, “this is just a show,” and he will be released from the courtyard on execution day. Providing Saeed with a false promise of release is intended to portray him to the media as confident about his chosen path, even if he is on the verge of death. Ali attends all the so-called show trials. He sees his father’s firm conviction in his actions, and he finally approaches his father to ask him directly about the details of the murders. Saeed explains the procedure to his son step-by-step.
The last sequence of the film ends with two interconnected mise en abymes. On the bus back to Tehran, Arezou reviews the video recordings she made during her trip; within that frame, the audience is presented with a video clip taken of Saeed’s son. Ali manifests himself as a follower of his father. He tells the camera and anyone who watches the video clip that if these women are not taken away from the streets, someone like his father will have to do the work. He also reveals that several people have already asked him to follow his father’s path.
From Arezou’s recorded video clip, the audience enters “a play within a film”: Ali plays the role of his father to demonstrate to Arezou and Sharifi how his father conducted his mission. In order to demonstrate his father’s method of cleansing the world of corruption, he asks his sister to play the role of the victim woman. The young man is serious in his show, telling his sister, “Do not laugh; this is not a joke; they are filming you. Do not move.”
The high-angle camera lens shows the little girl lying on the ground while she says, “I am dead,” the boy’s toes pressing into the carpet to show his anxiety and determination to follow his father’s path. Linda Hutcheon states that the position of a mise en abyme, as well as the direction in which it points, is critical. This is because such a technique can refer to future events as well as past ones, both within and preceding a text (Hutcheon, p. 56). As long as theocracy exists, such cases will never be resolved due to the blind ideology that fuels a theocratic regime.
Holy Spider displays the way this illusionary holy ideology is nurtured in theocratic regimes, allowing its shadow to spread locally as well as globally; this explains why the crime reporter in the film compares such matters to a “bottomless black hole.”
1. Regarding saffron production, Iran produces about 90% of the world’s total, cultivated mainly in Razavi Khorasan province.
2. The Basij is an independent vigilante network with paramilitary characteristics. The individual members of the group are known as Basiji. Usually, they are plain-clothed and remain unnoticed by the general public. As hardliners, they do not fear the law as their religious beliefs align with those of the theocratic regime. Mosques and religious places are usually the centers of Basij. Along with their other responsibilities, they also run the “Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice” program in Iran, with or without morality police assistance.
3. In Ancient Secrets and Modern Myths from the Stone Age to the Rock Age (Greenwood, 2008), Diane Morgan, Senior Lecturer in Literary and Cultural Studies at University College, Northampton, discusses the importance of red carnelian in Shia Islam. She states that some Shia imams refer to the red carnelian stone as the “Mecca stone,” as Imam Jafar, the grandfather of Imam Reza, claimed that wearing carnelian would grant any wish the wearer desires. Shias often engrave this stone with the names of their 12 Imams, and their wearer will always be in contact with Allah (p. 41-42).
4. Wudu is an essential part of an Islamic ritual that is usually performed before prayer. It involves washing the face, hands, and forearms up to the elbow and wiping the head and feet.