Stoning of Soraya M. (dir: Cyrus Nowrasteh)
“I am not afraid of dying,” says Soraya (Mozhan Marnò) to her friend and one-time protector, Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo), after she is sentenced to death by stoning by an all-male tribunal. “I am afraid of the stones, of the pain.”
Inspired by a true story of a woman in an isolated border village in Iran who is unjustly accused of adultery – or rather, the appearance of adultery – and sentenced to a brutal and painful death, Cyrus Nowrasteh’s film of Freidoune Sahebjam’s non-fiction book puts the audience through the paces of outrage at the patriarchy, hypocrisy, injustice and repression of women’s rights in post-revolution Iran.
Soraya is a devoted mother but an outspoken individual who stands up to her philandering, arrogant husband Ali (Navid Negahban), the Iranian answer to an American movie philanderer and wife beater. The difference here is that Ali has holy law (or at least an extreme reading of it) to justify his behavior. Ultimately, he uses that law to give him a cheap alternative to a divorce, with the help of a mercenary mullah (Ali Pourtash) blackmailed into helping him frame his wife for a crime punishable by death.
Director Cyrus Nowrasteh offers a serious social drama with his idea of outrage, which has the unfortunate dimensions of a B-movie. It plays out like a melodrama mystery of the forties, where scheming villains torment an innocent woman for their own petty gains and we await the arrival of the savior to arrive in the nick of time and reveal the villain for what he is. But there is no savior to ride to her rescue as she is sentenced and executed, and that is where the film becomes so powerful and affecting.
Nowrasteh shows us every step in the process, giving us a terrifying glimpse at the sense of helpless of the victim bound and buried to her head and shoulders and then showing us exactly what an execution by stoning really looks like. She is battered by rocks the size of a human fist, her flesh ripped, her skull hammered time and again, her face battered into pulp, all while she is propped up to see watch her abusers hurl each stone at her. It is horrific, barbaric, utterly inhuman, an assault not on some movie victim but on a human being and it is perpetrated by people whipped into a state of self-righteous piety with which to justify their brutality.
Yet the film is determined to sway us with overkill. It is not simply that the men of this village are misguided or insensitive. They corrupt, cruel, weak and falsely pious, and the plot leading up the sentence has the feel of a murder mystery melodrama. Nowrasteh punctuates every twist in the noose with a show of Ali’s cruel satisfaction and utter amorality. And when he finally steps up to throw a stone at Soraya, he wears a sourly malevolent look of triumph on his face, a look of sheer premeditated evil of a movie villain rather than the rage and the twisted sense of entitlement of a real human being so distorted by a hateful reading of the Koran that he pushes his “rights” to such extremes.
The story is framed by Zahra telling this village’s bitter, dirty secret to an Iranian-French journalist (James Caviezel, playing author Freidoune Sahebjam) who happens through town, in hopes that letting the world know of such barbarism will pressure the Iranian government to put an end to these laws. The book did indeed raise international awareness and the filmmakers surely hope the film will to the same. It’s disappointing that such a serious issue and a passionate cry of outrage is cloaked in such a manipulative melodrama. It’s not Soraya’s innocence that makes her death so unjust. It’s the very existence of repressive laws and brutal punishments, of a system that holds double standards for men and woman and passes judgment on moral issues with sentences of death, that deserves our outrage. Turning it into a story of scheming villains and legal manipulation only distracts from the real crime.
Directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh; screenplay by Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh and Cyrus Nowrasteh, from the book by Freidoune Sahebjam; featuring Shohreh Aghdashloo, Mozhan Marnò, James Caviezel, Navid Negahban, Ali Pourtash. Rated R for a disturbing sequence of cruel and brutal violence, and brief strong language. 116 minutes. In Persian and English, with English subtitles.
Also featured on the Seattle PostGlobe here.