The Stoning of Soraya M. ***
Directed by: Cyrus Nowrasteh.
Written By: Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh & Cyrus Nowrasteh based on the book by Freidoune Sahebjam.
Starring: Shohreh Aghdashloo (Zahra), Mozhan Marnò (Soraya M.), James Caviezel (Freidoune), Navid Negahban (Ali), Ali Pourtash (Mullah), David Diaan (Ebrahim), Parviz Sayyad (Hashem).
The characters in The Stoning of Soraya M. are all either innocents, monsters or cowards. They are pretty much one dimensional all the way around. It’s a good thing that the story that they are involved in is so powerful and interesting, because the characters themselves would never really involve us. The director, Cyrus Nowrasteh is also lucky to have the great Shoreh Aghdashloo in the lead role. She commands the screen with her terrific screen presence.
The movie is set in Iran after the fall of the Shah, and the more fundamentalist government has taken over. Women have had their rights systematically stripped away, and some men relish their new power. One of these men is Ali (Navid Negahban), who lives in a small village and commutes every day into the city for his job as a prison guard. He is married to Soraya (Mozhan Marno), but doesn’t want to be anymore. He has struck a deal with a prisoner on death row - if he can save the prisoner’s life, then he can marry his 14 year old daughter. Ali wants to do this, but cannot support two wives, so he wants a divorce - but he also does not want to pay his wife anything. After trying some other options, he hits upon a plan. The town elders have asked Soraya to work for a recent widow, and so she spends every day in another man’s home. Ali accuses her of adultery, which carries the price of death by stoning for her. Everyone knows the charges are trumped up, but only Soraya’s Aunt, Zahra (Aghdashloo) stands up for her. The town Mullah does not want to speak out against Ali, because Ali knows some of the dark secrets in his past. The mayor knows it is wrong, but is too cowardly to do anything to stop it. The man who Soraya is accused of having an affair with at first tries to resist, but he is rather slow witted, and allows the Mullah and Ali to intimidate him into lying.
Since it is in the title, I do not think I am spoiling anything to say that Soraya does indeed get stoned to death, in a scene of incredible brutality that stretches out minute after minute as people take turns throwing stones at her. Her father, her husband even her two sons get in on the action, and then most of the town joins in. As Soraya becomes a broken, bloody mess, unable to move as she is buried up to her waist in dirt, the town cheers on her death.
What the movie succeeds in doing is showing just how brutal, and yes, backwards and sexist the practice of stoning to death is. The man who is accused of being with Soraya gets no punishment at all. The “trial” that is done to convict Soraya is done behind closed doors, where he is not even allowed to go in and present evidence in her own defense. The movie, which is told from the point of view of Zahra, as she describes what happened to a foreign reporter (Jim Cavizel) who she hopes will be able to tell the world what is going on. What the film doesn’t do is show how a lynch mob of this sort really forms. We see dozens of people cheering the stoning on, and some even actively participating in it, but we never really understand why they all partipate. Also, I think that the movie does too much to sanctify Soraya herself. I know this movie is based on a true story, but considering that much of it was most likely made up, I think some liberties could have been taken. We know from the outset that Soraya is innocent, but what if she wasn’t? Even If she did commit adultery, does she deserve to be stoned to death? The ending of the movie, with it’s typical, Hollywood style uplift and ridicilousness about tapes being exchanged just does not fit.
But even despite the problems I have with the movie, it is still a powerful, involving movie. There are cultural differences between us in the Western world and some of the countries in the Middle East. Some of those differences we need to respect. But the practice of stoning women to death is primitive and wrong - and should not be condoned for any reason.