Based on the real-life story of an Iranian serial killer, Ali Abbasi’s Cannes competition entry ‘Holy Spider’ is immediately arresting, holding our attention successfully for its two-hour length. There’s no mystery about who the killer is. And we are left in no doubt why he kills. The conflict between religious belief and the rights of a human, morality and conviction, are at play here: if snuffing out a life is automatically wrong, how can you defend the killing of a killer?
Within the span of one year, 2000 and 2001, a construction worker in Mashhad killed sixteen women who worked the streets at night. His modus operandi was simple. He would cruise the streets on his motorcycle (the sound design emphasises the noise, and the backfire sounds like a gun), pick up women one by one, lure them into a safe space, and choke them with their chador. He would then dump them in a stretch of waste land, and lie in wait for the next one.
The targetting of prostitutes reminds you of the Jack the Ripper murders in the 1880s, in Victorian England. One of the reasons why serial killers offer up such a fascinating study of human behaviour is their unshakeable belief in themselves: Saeed Hanaei, the father of a young girl and a teenage boy, and a caring husband, is convinced that he is ‘cleansing’ the streets of sin. And that, when he is caught, he will be left scot-free, as there is so much social approval for his actions.
Censorship fears kept the filmmaking crew from shooting in Iran, with Amman, Jordan turning out to be a good stand-in. The Iran-born director, who now lives in Denmark, was in his home country when the killings took place, and they left a deep impact on him. In this ‘Persian noir’, as he termed it at its Cannes premiere, we see the attempts he has made at humanising the victims. One kisses her little girl on the forehead, telling her she will be back soon; another is the only earner in her family, which hides their grief even as they join the rising hosannahs against the ‘devil’s work’ the dead women were involved in.
The insertion of a Tehran-based journalist Rahimi (the gorgeous Zar Amir Ebrahim), a largely fictional character, and her collaboration with a local reporter Sharifi (Arash Ashtiani) turns the film into a Hollywood-style procedural. The moment we see her, all determined to ‘crack the case’, we know that soon there will be that bait-and-switch moment, as she and her partner go hot-footing off in search of the killer.
But Abbasi takes care to make it deeper. Rahimi is looked upon with suspicion as a lone woman ‘travelling without her husband’, when she checks into a hotel. A lecherous police officer tries making moves on her. Even in today’s Iran, just like in so many conservative places in the world, being a female professional is dangerous: each step is filled with misogyny-laden scorn. The wife of the killer (Mehdi Bajestani) does her best to discredit Rahimi, who smokes, offers cigarettes to strange men, and is out at night when all good women should be in their own homes. And the fact that the murderer roams around so casually and so freely even after so many dead bodies have been found makes you wonder: do the authorities know what he is up to, and are deliberately turning a blind eye?
‘Holy Spider’ is a dark, atmospheric character study of one of the most difficult humans to sympathise with. This is a film that makes you think. Will it win something at this 75th edition of the festival? The buzz is strong.
It’s hard to make a film that’s such a drag with the kind of subject matter, and subjects, that ‘Forever Young’ has. A bunch of frisky young actors in the 1980s gets into one of the most coveted drama schools in France, and for over two hours, we see them preen and pose, snort coke and discover each others’ crevices. Usually, a film which gives us actors going through the rigorous process of becoming actors can become an interesting exercise, especially as they peel back layers and let us in on them. After an initial audition, one of the hopefuls says to another: I feel ashamed. The listener shoots back: that’s good, because that proves you went deep inside yourself.
After this promising exchange which feels true if a trifle cliched, you keep searching for depth in this indulgent, largely blank feature directed by Valeri Bruni-Tedeschi. The effort is in vain.