Review: 'The Stoning of Soraya M.'

Based on an 1986 incident, this portrayal of mob rule in an Iranian village is a haunting tale.

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Soraya M. (Mozhan Marno), being prepared by Iranian soldiers for the stoning in 'The Stoning of Soraya M.'
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The current turmoil in Iran gives added weight to "The Stoning of Soraya M.," based on a gruesome event in a small village in the southwestern part of that nation in 1986. As reported by the Paris-based Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam in his 1994 bestseller "The Stoning of Soraya M.: A True Story," Soraya (well portrayed in the movie by Mozhan MarnĂ²), was falsely accused of infidelity. She was buried up to her waist and pelted to death with rocks by villagers who included her father, two sons, and her husband, Ali (Navid Negahban), who set the entire horror show in motion after Soraya counteracted his intention to marry a 14-year-old girl.

This sequence, the film's culmination, goes on for about 20 minutes, and you feel every second of it in your bones. While it is certainly no more graphic than any number of action-flick blood baths, it is far more shocking because Soraya is a human being we have come to know.

The film, shot entirely in Farsi, begins the day after the stoning. Stranded in the village when his car breaks down, Sahebjam (Jim Caviezel) is confronted by Soraya's aunt Zahra (the royally imperious Shohreh Aghdashloo) who, in secrecy, has him tape-record her account of the events leading up to Soraya's murder. In flashback, we see the whole grisly unfolding of events with its nefarious cast of characters: Besides Ali, there's the town's spineless mayor (David Diann), the corrupt mullah (Ali Pourtash), and the widower (Parviz Sayyad) who knows Soraya is innocent of adultery with him but goes along with the rabble anyway.

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Director Cyrus Nowrasteh and his co-writer (and wife) Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh have obviously watched a lot of Hollywood movies about mob rule and righteous indignation. The story line at times resembles a cross between "High Noon" and "The Crucible," and it also summons up Shirley Jackson's famous story "The Lottery." Their heavy-handedness can perhaps be justified by the enormity of their subject, but they do themselves no favors by portraying the villagers, with the exception of Soraya and Zahra, as unregenerate curs.

How could the good people of the village so readily join forces with the bad? It is not only Soraya whose fate seems preordained here; everyone else is also acting out this passion play. I'm sure there are those who will argue that psychological nuance would be misplaced in a movie as "elemental" as this one, that it is first and foremost an indictment of a practice that is still codified under the Islamic republic.

But even agitprop movies must have their mite of evenhandedness. Without it, the real-life horrors that we see become not more but less believable. The filmmakers would have made their case even stronger if they weren't so intent on reducing their palette to black and white.

The stoning sequence is justifiably explicit, which is more than can be said for most movie violence. Still, I could have done without the moment when Ali, checking to see if Soraya is dead, spots a rolling of her eyes and orders the stoning to continue. Sometimes enough is, indeed, enough. I could also have done without the standard-issue melodramatics that close out the film, with Sahebjam frantically trying to start his car while pursued by the angry horde. Did Nowrasteh think the stoning sequence wasn't a big enough liftoff?

Because stoning is still sanctioned in Iran under the current regime, as well as occurring in Saudi Arabia and parts of sub-Saharan Africa that follow sharia law, "The Stoning of Soraya M.," has value as a call to action. This is not to be belittled. Whatever its dramatic flaws, and they are many, this is a movie that, in essence, is more than a movie. (Rated R for a disturbing sequence of cruel and brutal violence and brief strong language.)

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