The Nights of Mashhad: criticism of a hunt without return


When Ali Abbasi reveals Border at Cannes in 2018, the Un Certain Regard selection is on fire. For his first appearance on the Croisette, the Danish filmmaker of Iranian origin plunged the public into a re-enchanted daily life, that of a woman pointed out as unsightly, whose strange particularity would open the doors to a universe of mythological dimensions. .

Sensory and constantly changing, the film won the grand prize in its section. So when, a year later, the artist returns to us with an investigation inspired by the hunt for the “spider killer” who bloodied the sacred city of Mashhad at the dawn of the 2000s, it can be said that we open big eyes.

A terrible night

And as soon as it starts, Nights of Mashhad exposes what will be the basis of its staging. A crude, initially naturalistic exhibition of the hypocritical everyday life of a sacred city, where prostitution cannot exist, chasing down those who massacre sex workers is not a priority. Hence the fearless crudeness of the first sequence, during which a woman crosses a long night of passes, the last of which will prove fatal. It is in the shift in point of view, from the future victim to his assassin, that lies the program of the work.

Conscious of arriving after the Seven as well as the Maniac, Ali Abbasi proposes a third way, by examining the society which gave birth to Saeed, an ex-soldier of the revolution, frustrated by his agreed marriage, but above all by the distant memory of the war that offered him the opportunity to kill and be respected for it. It is almost rationally that man turns to the serial murder of “sinful women”, a sort of ideal equation to satisfy his death instincts, and disguise them with the glory he once received.

The Nights of Mashhad : Photo by Zar Amir EbrahimiA prison world


At first sight, Mashaad’s Nights suggests that killer and investigator will be treated equally, each weighing the distance, the moral chasm, or the hunger for death, separating him from the other. For a time, the script therefore gives pride of place to the character of Rahimia journalist defying her condition as an Iranian woman and the religious authorities to palliate the indolence of a police force which is more or less happy to regularly pick up the rotting remains of women who embarrass them.

Fictional heroine, Rahimi allows the director not only to easily immerse us in the Iranian society of the time, but more certainly to show how much this reassuring posture, that of a woman triumphing over a destructive patriarchy, raises of the tale. As the carnage perpetrated by Saeed gains scale and savagery, it is the people who welcome this rendering. It is the social body that coalesces around him, prohibiting the journalist from brandishing the obscenity of the situation.

The Nights of Mashhad : Photo by Zar Amir EbrahimiAnd not even a toll-free number!

Sequence after sequence, it is the figure of the killer who regains control of the story. The scenario lets him go, poses us as observers more and more involved in these hunting sessions, almost forcing us to participate, if not to approve. Our scopic drive is obviously questioned, violently, by this display of grotesque aggressivenessby the cruelty and the idiocy of this man who does not really know whether copulating next to the barely concealed corpse of his latest prey excites him or worries him.

This reflux of the initial protagonist in favor of the herald of death and religious fundamentalism is a test for the spectator. But by confronting us with the voyeuristic dimension of the company, as well as with the authentic nightmare which founds it (a group validating and mythologizing the exactions of the worst of its members), Abbasi does not just test us, he forges his speech like a double-edged sword. The same that made in the 70s the poisonous power of William Friedkin, who explored evil more deeply than any of his contemporaries.

The Nights of Mashhad: photoA prayer to better escape reality


Halfway through, while the staging seems to marry the deadly bulimia of the killer, Nights of Mashhad could switch to the foul, by not questioning its own subject. But Abbasi then rediscovers the language developed in Border, and pulls out of the game with remarkable finesse. In spite of his carried camera, of this photograph which one would swear receives natural light more than it plays with it, reality blurs, breaks up. A dialogue turns out to be pure narcissistic trip, the stifling heat of a jail gives way to a divine and imaginary rain. And a very innocent exchange with an unfriendly policeman reveals the clever part that the men around Rahimi share without saying so.

Thanks to an iconoclastic long shot, from a perspective based on Saeed’s dilated pupils, we feel the curtain of everyday life being torn. Like the heroine of her previous film, he too receives like so many voltaic discharges the calls of the foot of another world. Except that his, a hybrid fantasy of religious obligations, crowd excitement and narcissistic delirium, does not exist. The assassin inhabits a fantasy, into which the camera rushes.

The Nights of Mashhad: photoA spider and its web

Consequently, the scenario writer will hold in the same gesture the inheritance of the voyeuristic criminal cinema, and his personal grammar. Miraculously, he assumes the documentary horror to which his autopsy turns of a vibrating country for a murderous psychopath, just as he gives us to feel what founds this monstrous alliance. The intoxication, individual as collective, of a more than human punishment addressed to those who are nothing, electrifying the group and absolving the last of the bastards.

It doesn’t matter then that Rahimi (excellent Zar Amir Ebrahimi) brought down the serial killer. Never mind that he was hanged. She only gave birth to the legend, and as the final images of the Nights of Mashhad, gave future generations a terrifying instruction manual. Ali Abbasi, meanwhile, fascinates with the crest line on which he places his work, between the stopping power of a Powell giving to see and love all the ambiguity of The Voyeur and the harshness of a moralist, who will ultimately confront his killer with the noose of his homicidal gluttony.

The Nights of Mashhad: French Poster

The Nights of Mashhad: criticism of a hunt without return