Directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh. Shohreh Aghdashloo, Mozhan Marno, Navid Negahban, David Diaan, Parviz Sayyad, Jim Caviezel. Roadside (USA, 2009).
Decent Films Ratings
Content advisory: A prolonged, graphically brutal execution sequence; some sexual references, an obscenity and some crass language.
By Steven D. Greydanus
Cyrus Nowrasteh’s The Stoning of Soraya M shines a pale, narrow beam of light at a real atrocity that, tragically, continues to play out in certain corners of the world. Highlighting the powerlessness and peril of women under a system that requires them, if accused of infidelity, to prove their innocence or die, but will not punish their husbands unless their guilt is proved, the film’s spotlight exposes a barbaric injustice while for the most part leaving the surrounding social and cultural context in darkness.
Adapted by Nowrasteh and his wife and co-writer Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh from the historical novel by French-Iranian writer Freidoune Sahebjam, the fact-based film tells the story of an inconvenient wife who was stoned to death in 1986, seven years after the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution that deposed the Shah and transformed Iran into an extremist theocracy under the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Iranian-born actress and expatriate Shohreh Aghdashloo, previously seen in the similarly named The Exorcism of Emily Rose as well as The Nativity Story, plays Zahra, aunt and advocate of Soraya (Mozhan Marno), falsely accused of adultery by her thuggish, abusive husband Ali (Navid Nagahban), who wants to take a new bride without being financially strapped to Soraya and their daughters. Jim Caviezel has a supporting role as Sahebjam, the writer to whom Zahra entrusts the story of her niece’s brutal, agonizing murder.
The Stoning of Soraya M offers legitimate moral outrage over Soraya’s plight, but little insight. Having seen it, I have a more accurate picture of the ghoulishness of what it means to be stoned to death by a rural mob in one of the half-dozen or so Muslim nations in which stoning is permitted. But I don’t have much more understanding than before of the world in which such acts occur, into how people like the characters in this story live and think and see the world.
In this respect, Soraya M resembles another outrage movie, Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters, that exposed real atrocities against women, and the underlying cultural and institutional pathologies that made them possible, but gave little insight into the social and cultural context in which those pathologies and atrocities occurred.
Like The Magdalene Sisters, Soraya M offers its audience only those appalling truths they want to know about the evils of an alien culture they are already inclined to look down upon. There is no element of challenge to either film, other than the challenge to moral outrage, which isn’t really much of a challenge, apart from understanding. (Interestingly, a number of critics who have denigrated Soraya M as “torture porn” who would never think of calling The Magdalene Sisters anti-Catholic porn.)
To be fair, while The Magdalene Sisters is the better made film, Soraya M isn’t as ruthlessly black and white as Mullan’s film. At least Soraya M allows its villains such human traits as motivations and conflicting inclinations — something Mullan couldn’t muster for his religious and clerical villains, who are simply evil and abusive with no further moral dimension. Where Catholicism in The Magdalene Sisters is solely a force for evil, Soraya M offers no blanket indictment of Islam, sharia law, Muslim leaders, or Iranian cultural identity per se (which is heroically embodied in Zahra).
An opening epigraph citing the 14th-century Persian poet Hafez (“Don’t act like the hypocrite who thinks he can conceal his wiles by loudly quoting the Koran”) distances the movie’s atrocities from the sincere practice of Islam. The villains — brutish Ali, the corrupt mayor (David Diaan), the shady local mullah (Ali Pourtash) — aren’t overtly religious; in fact, the mullah is a fraud and a con man, and the film offers little explicit religosity at all, other than rote cries of “God is great,” particularly during the stoning sequence.
None of this makes Soraya M anything like a nuanced picture. Soraya suffers with Christ-like innocence and virtue; clad in a white robe before her angry accusers, she overtly evokes the victim of Caviezel’s most famous movie.
The mayor is a dithering Pilate figure who suspects the innocence of the accused but is cowed by the threats of her accusers. As Pilate’s wife futilely petitioned him to “have nothing to do with that righteous man,” Zahra futilely pleads with the mayor, whom she once considered marrying, to save her niece. As for Ali, he’s as contemptible as Mel Gibson’s Caiaphas, Judas and Barabbas in one. Other than one false witness, who is kindly disposed to Soraya but bullied into betraying her, Soraya’s neighbors are a malleable, insensible rabble.
A few bits rise above the rote moral tableau to genuine pathos and poignancy. In one wrenching scene, Soraya tries to convince the youngest of her sons not to watch her stoning or to have anything to do with it. The later shot of that conflicted lad facing his helpless mother with a stone in his hand is possibly the most shattering moment in the film. (In reality, apparently, Soraya’s sons were older than the film depicts them, and well on the path of following in their father’s footsteps.) The unexpected arrival of carriage of entertainers just before the stoning begins, a bit of real-life Felliniesque absurdity, shatters the somber inevitability of the climax and brings home the horror of the execution anew.
But such high points are undone by the embarrassing faux triumph of the last scene, in which a trumped-up bit of suspense about whether Caviezel’s character will make it out of town with Zahra’s recorded testimony climaxes with Zahra standing with her arms outstretched to heaven, shouting in victory, “The whole world will know!” It’s an overly neat, hollow ending to an essentially raw, ragged story.