New this week on DVD, 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, 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 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.
Iranian-born Shohreh Aghdashloo (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Nativity Story) plays Zahra, aunt and advocate of Soraya (Mozhan Marno), falsely accused of adultery by her thuggish, abusive husband Ali, 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 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 by a rural mob in one of the half-dozen or so Muslim nations in which stoning is permitted. 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, The Magdalene Sisters, that 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. (Critics who denigrated Soraya M as “torture porn,” which is unfair, would never think of calling The Magdalene Sisters anti-Catholic porn, which it is.)
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 Passion of the Christ. The mayor is a dithering Pilate figure who suspects the innocence of the accused but is cowed by the threats of her accusers. As for Ali, he’s as contemptible as Mel Gibson’s Caiaphas, Judas and Barabbas in one.
A few bits rise above the rote moral tableau. 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. 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 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.
Note: A longer version of this review appears at Decent Films.