'Stoning of Soraya': No Escape, For Victim Or Viewer

Mozhan Marno in 'The Stoning of Soraya M.' i

Accused of infidelity, Soraya (Mozhan Marno, right) faces death by stoning. Mpower hide caption

itoggle caption Mpower
Mozhan Marno in 'The Stoning of Soraya M.'

Accused of infidelity, Soraya (Mozhan Marno, right) faces death by stoning.

Mpower

The Stoning of Soraya M.

  • Director: Cyrus Nowrasteh
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 116 minutes

Rated R: Cruel and brutal violence, brief strong language

With: Shohreh Aghdashloo, Mozhan Marno, Jim Caviezel

Shohreh Aghdashloo (right) and James Caviezel in 'The Stoning of Soraya M.' i

A French-Iranian journalist (James Caviezel, left) finds himself stranded amid a violent scandal when Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo) tells him the village secret. Mpower hide caption

itoggle caption Mpower
Shohreh Aghdashloo (right) and James Caviezel in 'The Stoning of Soraya M.'

A French-Iranian journalist (James Caviezel, left) finds himself stranded amid a violent scandal when Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo) tells him the village secret.

Mpower
Villagers in 'The Stoning of Soraya M.' i

Fellow villagers turn against Soraya when her husband falsely accuses her of cuckolding him. Mpower hide caption

itoggle caption Mpower
Villagers in 'The Stoning of Soraya M.'

Fellow villagers turn against Soraya when her husband falsely accuses her of cuckolding him.

Mpower

A tale of horrific injustice, The Stoning of Soraya M. is set in Iran, based on a French-Iranian journalist's book and directed by an Iranian-American filmmaker.

Yet its brazen approach couldn't be less like the discreet style that led contemporary Iranian cinema to international acclaim.

The movie opens with a 14th-century rebuke to Islamic hypocrites and a note that the script is based on a true story. Then, while a woman in a black chador walks a mountain road, a man in a sputtering car pulls into a nearby town.

The woman is Zahra (House of Sand and Fog's Shohreh Aghdashloo), whose niece was stoned to death the day before. The man (The Passion of Christ's Jim Caviezel) goes unnamed, but is clearly modeled on Freidoune Sahebjam, who wrote the 1990 book that's the movie's source. Speaking English so they won't be understood by suspicious villagers, Zahra tells the reporter what happened to Soraya (Mozhan Marno), a model wife and mother of four.

Soraya's unprincipled husband, Ali (Navid Negahban), intends to marry the 14-year-old daughter of a political prisoner who is being held at the jail where Ali works. (Apparently, the girl has agreed to the match in hopes of saving her father.)

Since he can't afford two wives, Ali asks Soraya for a divorce. Fearing poverty and disgrace, she refuses. So Ali devises an alternate plan: accuse Soraya of adultery with Hashem, the recently widowed man for whom she does some housekeeping.

Making this bogus accusation stick requires the assistance of the local mullah, Hassan (Ali Pourtash). But that's easily arranged, since Ali knows the man's secret. Hassan has no clerical credentials; he's just an ex-con who figured that, after 1979's Islamic Revolution, religion was the best available racket.

With Hassan behind him, Ali soon has the town's skeptical mayor in line. The timid Hashem sees no option but perjury, and conviction is assured. The sentence: death by stoning.

Director Cyrus Nowrasteh, who co-scripted with spouse Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh, bases the film's structure on the title event: Soraya will be stoned until dead, and you will watch. For viewers, as for women living under Islam's cruelest regimes, there is no escape.

This is a problematic strategy, and not just because it reduces the movie's potential audience to the courageous (and, perhaps, the jaded). However honorable the filmmaker's intentions, the protracted execution sequence feels exploitative.

The director stylizes the action with such Hollywood tricks as quick cuts, slow motion and orbiting camera movements. He even ends the movie with a swashbuckling little victory over the town's pious villains, although it comes too late to help Soraya.

Perhaps Nowrasteh should instead have emulated the work of such Iranian directors as Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi, masters of the unseen and unspoken. It's devastating enough to watch the villagers — including Soraya's father and sons — forced to pick up stones, without ever seeing the projectile's bloody impact.

Of course, Kiarostami and Panahi couldn't even consider adapting The Stoning of Soraya M.; Iranian censors wouldn't allow it. The movie is so controversial that its credits identify the country where it was filmed only as somewhere "in the Middle East."

In those places where it can be shown, the movie should get people talking, which may be the most important thing. As drama, though, The Stoning of Soraya M. is as fixed as its title character's trial.

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