Written by Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh and Cyrus Nowrasteh
Directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh
Starring Shohreh Aghdashloo, Mozhan Marno, Navid Negahban and Jim Caviezel
As The Stoning of Soraya M. makes clear, being on the right side of an issue doesn't ensure a winning argument. The film is based on a horrible, true story. In 1986, an Iranian husband rid himself of a wife by falsely accusing her of infidelity. Soraya M. was taken to a village square and buried to the waist. While the town's religious leader and judge watched, the woman's father, neighbours and children then took turns battering her with hard-thrown rocks until she died.
Stoning is a form of capital punishment in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Should it be? Should anyone - adulterers, gays, or anyone who practices sex outside traditional marriage - be subject to public torture?
Of course not. Still, that doesn't mean that fighting for a great cause, the abolition of public torture in the Muslim world, necessarily makes for a great film. Though The Stoning of Soraya M.' s heart is in the right place, its head is lost in storm clouds of anger. Colorado-born USC film grad Cyrus Nowrasteh's work never accomplishes what should be its primary goal - helping us understand the social phenomenon that allows a woman to be tortured by loved ones for "disobeying God."
The film doesn't want to
us to think; it wants us to
Every scene is an accusation: Soraya's husband is a monster. The town's Muslim cleric is a preening, self-regarding ogre. Iranian men hate and fear women. Iranian law is sexist.
The Stoning of Soraya M. isn't a drama, but a mountain of evidence. The film's ominous tone is in place from the start. The car of a French-Iranian journalist (Jim Caviezel) breaks down in rural Iran. A local woman, Zahra - a crazy woman, some say - seeks him out. She has a story to tell. Out it all comes, in flashback: Soraya M. (Mozhan Marno) has been falsely accused, betrayed, tried and executed; tortured by her own friends and family.
None of what we see, however, has the flavour or flow of real life. Characters talk in what sounds like pull quotes from a magazine story. (The movie is based on a best-selling book by journalist Freidoune Sahebjam.) "When a man accuses his wife, she must prove her innocence," Soraya is told. "That's the law. On the other hand, if a wife accuses her husband, she must prove his guilt."
"This is a man's world, boys - never forget it," Soraya's husband, Ali (Navid Negahban) tells his children, explaining why he wants their mother tortured and killed.
Then there is Soraya's public stoning - a ghastly, 20-minute sequence that literally defines the term "overkill."
The film's barbarous conclusion is but one example of Nowrasteh's crude, overemphatic film style. Elsewhere, we see the evil, perpetually smirking Ali posed next to a poster of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. Curiously, the filmmaker seems to believe that Zahra's account of Soroya's final hours isn't credible unless Zahra is privy to Soraya's every last step; an unwieldy dramatic contrivance that has actress Shohreh Aghdashloo ( House of Sand and Fog ) racing about their village listening into doorways and windows for evidence of evil.
She always finds what she's listening for. Nowrasteh's hysterical call for vengeance has little empathy for the culture it's examining. At one point, Ali schemes to knock off his wife by destroying her character, saying, "First we start the rumours in this [expletive]hole town." Even the bad Iranians hate Iran in The Stoning of Soraya M.
Special to The Globe and Mail