Holy Spider: Ali Abbasi’s Fact-Inspired Serial Killer Thriller (Cannes Fest 2023)

Amir-Ebrahimi on Film’s Relevancy in Wake of Iran Protests: “I’ve Started to Watch It in a Different Way”

Amir-Ebrahimi, who won the best actress prize at the 2023 Cannes Fest, speaks to the power of Denmark’s Oscar submission, about an Iranian serial killer who targets women.


Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider wasn’t meant to be prophetic, or so timely.

The director’s serial-killer drama is inspired by the true story of Saeed Hanaei, who murdered prostitutes in the Iranian city Mashhad, claiming he was acting on behalf of God to “cleanse” the holy center of their corruption.

Zar Amir-Ebrahimi stars as Rahimi, a fictional journalist who investigates the murders and comes to realize that the authorities have little interest in catching the suspect.

At its premiere at Cannes, Holy Spider shocked viewers with its unflinching depiction of the violent misogyny Abbasi sees at the heart of modern Iran.

It was already part of the awards conversation when Denmark — Abbasi is an Iranian exile based in Copenhagen — submitted the film as its official entry for the 2023 Oscars.

Suddenly, Holy Spider feels starkly relevant.

“Since the protests, people have begun to watch the movie in a different way,” says Amir-Ebrahimi, “I’ve started to watch it in a different way.”

Amir-Ebrahimi, 41, has firsthand experience of Iran’s religious oppression. A popular TV actress in the early 2000s, she saw her career fall apart after an intimate video of her and her boyfriend was leaked online. Fearing for her life and facing a potential prison sentence and 97 lashes for the charge of having a sexual relationship outside wedlock, she fled the country and is now based in Paris.

Amir-Ebrahimi talks about the urgency of Holy Spider‘s “feminist message,” how women are leading the fight against Iran’s theocracy and whether the protests can bring about real change.

Holy Spider is inspired by real murders in Mashhad years ago?

I feel so sad about all these events in Iran. But at the same time, I’m really optimistic and think having this movie, which is somehow related to the situation, is a real opportunity to talk about the conditions of women and men in Iran, what is really going on. It was very bizarre: We were at the Toronto Film Festival on the day [Mahsa Amini died]. And it was amazing how people started to watch this movie in a different way. Not only the audience. I’ve started to watch it in a different way. Ali Abbasi always said he didn’t want to make a feminist movie, a movie about women, but for me, from the very beginning, this movie was about women, about how women are seen in Iran. Just the way Ali frames women, showing them without hijab, without scarves, which you never see in Iranian film. But in Holy Spider, we see their body, their hair, their skin and all these faces of women.

Do you view your character, Rahimi, differently now?

Rahimi fights for freedom, for the right to tell the truth. And I see that everywhere today. Preparing for this role, I was always looking for Rahimi, for her motivation, why she risks so much in her fight for truth. I felt this is a fictional character; I didn’t know if I could find a model of Rahimi in the real world, especially in Iran. Now, I see those women fighting for their freedom in the streets, without their headscarves, defiant. It’s like we have thousands of Rahimis in the streets. Having the movie come out now, in the U.S., Europe and everywhere, is really important because it’s led us to talk about the situation in Iran. I think, especially in the West, people were silent. Nobody wanted to see the reality. But now you can’t ignore it. People seem to think that these protests will just pass quickly, as others have in the past. But they won’t.

Zar Amir-Ebrahimi (left) in Utopia’s Holy Spider, for which she won the best actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival this year.
Zar Amir-Ebrahimi (left) in Utopia’s Holy Spider, for which she won the best actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival this year. COURTESY OF MUBI

Major protests in Iran before, which didn’t change things?

The Iranian people have always been afraid of having another revolution, because our revolution in 1979 was stolen from us and everyone was traumatized by the experience. But there is  younger generation now that sees the regime and its patriarchal society as the problem. It’s very much related to our movie, which talks about the patriarchy, about misogyny, about how women’s bodies are controlled by the state. Now you see on the streets, women and men side by side fighting for women’s rights and for human rights, all there together. For me, this is really, really new. The protests started as a fight for women’s rights. But now the call we repeat is: “Women. Life. Freedom.” People see fighting for women’s rights means fighting for freedom, for life itself.

The Iranian film industry as well?