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Jim Caviezel & Shohreh Aghdashloo in THE STONING OF SORAYA M. (Photo: MPower Pictures)

Directed by
Cyrus Nowrasteh
Produced by
Stephen McEveety & John Shepherd
Written by Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh & Cyrus Nowrasteh, based on the book by Freidoune Sahebjam
Released by Roadside Attractions/Mpower Pictures
English & Farsi with English subtitles
USA. 116 min. Rated R
Shohreh Aghdashloo, Ali Pourtash, Mozhan Marnò, Navid Negahban, David Diann, Parviz Sayyad & Jim Caviezel  

The Stoning Of Soraya M. is being released the same week as Iranian women dominate the anti-regime protests and the image of Neda Agha-Soltan bleeding to death on a Tehran street has been flashed around the world. But the film, which tracks step-by-step the honor killing of a woman soon after the Iranian Revolution, strives to be more than an anti-government screed or a bash of Muslim extremists in depicting how a community gets caught up in sanctioned violence.

The events are based on the reporting by the late Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam, who wrote while exiled in France, despite a fatwa against him. He specified that the film version had to be made in Farsi mostly with Iranian actors and a director of Iranian heritage. Cyrus Nowrasteh has previously written and/or directed such unsubtle politically tinged TV docudramas as The Path to 9/11 and The Day Reagan Was Shot. Refreshingly, his collaboration with his wife Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh on the adaptation adds some human complexities to the horrific story. His Iranian-born father was a technical advisor on the set, “in an undisclosed Arab country in the Middle East,” according to the production notes.

The director was inspired by such classics as William Wellman‘s The Ox-Bow Incident and Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery,” but it opens a lot like John Sturges’s Bad Day at Black Rock, where a stranger comes to an isolated desert town that has a terrible secret. Jim Caviezel plays Sahebjam, who tries to sneak out of Iran with taped interviews, but is halted by car trouble. He is further waylaid by an insistent, black-robed old woman, Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo, in a furious performance that anchors the film). She is determined that he should tape her account of what just happened to her niece Soraya.

The other villagers are as stony to him as the landscape, insisting that Zahra is crazy, but she is old enough to have a cynical outlook on the changes brought to her community since the Shah’s fall in 1979, and her insights make for a shrewd analysis. (Mohammed Naqvi’s documentary Shame similarly traced how clan and personality conflicts led to a community supported rape punishment in Pakistan in 2002.)

The major villain is Soraya’s husband, Ali (Navid Negahban), and he is unremittingly evil— he’s a prison guard, a manipulative liar, and an adulterous wife-beater who turns their sons against their mother. (He would seem too extreme if what he did as reported in the book wasn’t worse.) Ali offers a prisoner leniency in exchange for marriage to his young daughter, but Soraya (Mozhan Marnò) refuses to divorce Ali or to become a concubine to the local mullah so that her husband can support this new bride. Ali hatches a plan to be rid of his strong-willed wife that both takes advantage of her good nature and capitalizes on his intimate knowledge of the village men.

These other men are more complex, particularly through their excellent acting (and hopefully they will play more than the usual terrorist roles in the future). Ali knows that the mullah (Ali Pourtash) is really a con man who escaped from prison during the revolutionary chaos. The mayor (David Diann) was Zahra’s childhood sweetheart, but his civil authority is trumped by the newly extreme interpretations of Islamic law. The widower mechanic, Hashem (Parviz Sayyad), gratefully accepts the mayor’s suggestion to employ Soraya as housekeeper and minder for his disabled son, but he cannot resist the peer pressure to later accuse her of exhibiting unseemly language and behavior.

The village mean girls are inside agitators, gossips jealously spreading rumors and blame (and John Debney’s swelling score adds a bit too much to the hysteria, though it lacks Middle Eastern resonance). When the men gather to decide Soraya’s fate, the mullah convinces her father not only of her crime but the necessity of her punishment: “With each stone, your honor will return.” News of the frenzy spreads such that a circus troupe thinks it must be a market day and, in a Fellini-esque but true coincidence, arrives to entertain the village just as Soraya is forced in a hole to receive the stones the village boys have been excitedly preparing.

Yes, the title scene is explicit, extended, and gruesome to watch (it left me with quite a headache). But it very effectively makes the point that an entire community was complicit and that such punishments continue around the world. A stoning is not accomplished quickly or by one person. What sustains Zahra, even after Soraya’s death, is her passionate belief that if the world knew about such perversions of justice then it would stop it. However difficult the film is to watch, it makes that case fervidly. Nora Lee Mandel
June 26, 2009



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