The Stoning of Soraya M.

Movie Information

The Story: A stranded journalist is told the story of a woman stoned to death on bogus charges of adultery in a small town in Iran. The Lowdown: A fact-based drama that has an unfortunate tendency to topple over into melodrama and propaganda -- not to mention a lengthy, graphic depiction of the title event. Crudely powerful, but the crude may outstrip the power.
Genre: Fact-Based Drama
Director: Cyrus Nowrasteh
Starring: Shohreh Aghdashloo, Mozhan Marnò, Jim Caviezel, Navid Negahban, Ali Pourtash, David Diaan
Rated: R

I suspect that we’re supposed to be impressed by the fact that Cyrus Nowrasteh’s The Stoning of Soraya M. is based on a true story and depicts the barbaric Islamic practice of stoning a woman to death for adultery—and, in this case, ludicrously trumped-up charges of adultery. I equally suspect that we’re meant to take the view that the film is well-intentioned and brave for bringing this to light. Maybe so, but—apart from committing this material to film—I’m unclear as to exactly how the film is bringing anything to light. The events depicted took place in 1986 and have already been recounted in the best-selling book from 1994 on which the movie is based.

The fact that the movie doesn’t identify the era in which the story takes place makes me a little skeptical of the intent. I’m not saying that things are better now than they were 23 years ago—I claim no expertise on the topic—but deliberately sidestepping the date smells funny. It has the vague whiff of propaganda—something that is borne out by the crudeness of the characterizations, the movie’s sledgehammer subtlety and its pedigree. Let’s look at that last first. The film comes from Mpower Pictures, whose other credits are the pro-life drama Bella (2006), the direct-to-video Star of Bethlehem (2007) and the right-wing comedy An American Carol (2008). Is there an agenda here? They’re entitled to one, sure. Similarly, we as the audience are entitled to know it.

Along the same lines, we’re entitled to know that a film with a nearly 20-minute-long, incredibly graphic stoning as its centerpiece was co-produced by Stephen McEveety, who produced The Passion of the Christ (2004). That should let you know the level of graphic depiction you’re in for. I can find some justification for handling the scene in this manner, since it drives home the full horror of the practice, but it comes within striking distance of torture porn. Should such a scene be horrible? Yes, but this seems to wallow in unpleasantness for its own sake—and to ends I’m not wholly comfortable with. Even granting that the minute you depict something on film it gains an immediacy it can never have on the printed page, there’s more than that here, and unsettlingly so.

The story is simple—perhaps too simple. Journalist Freidoune Sahebjam’s (Jim Caviezel in his usual dyspeptic-looking mode, but with greasy hair) car breaks down in an Iranian backwater. While his car is being repaired, a woman, Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo, The Lake House), dismissed by the local bigwigs as “crazy,” tells him the story of Soraya M. (Mozhan Marno, Traitor), who had been stoned to death by the villagers the day before. (In the book, it was two weeks earlier.) The bulk of the film charts the machinations of Soraya’s husband, Ali (Navid Negahban, Charlie Wilson’s War), to rid himself of his unwanted wife so that he can marry a 14-year-old. When all else fails, he trumps up charges of adultery and coerces the local authorities—an ineffectual mayor (David Diaan) and a corrupt “holy man” (Ali Pourtash)—to go along with him. From there the film works its way through to the stoning—and the ill-advised “feel good” dramatics of the return to the framing story.

The film does have a certain crude power. But that’s part of the problem with it: It’s too crude. The bad guys are oh-so-bad that they almost become comical. The symbolism is clunky and old-fashioned (that flight-of-birds business was slightly laughable in its heavy-handedness back in 1931 in City Streets). The depiction of crowd psychology is childishly simplistic. (The lynch mob in Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936) is better defined, and they’re scarcely defined at all.) The whole thing feels ham-fisted. What’s unfortunate is that the story the movie tells deserves better than an approach that’s somewhat less subtle than an old Soviet propaganda picture.

In other respects, the film certainly has merits. It’s beautifully photographed, for starters (even if one wonders why the village is situated in such a barren, ugly part of the area when there are boundless green fields within walking distance). Also, some of the performances are very good. As might be expected, the gifted actress Shohreh Aghdashloo is quite marvelous in the role of Zahra. However, this continues the pattern of Aghdashloo being in movies that are nowhere near as good as she is. Still, her performance alone probably makes the film worth seeing. In the end, I do think the film ought to be seen—providing you have the stomach for the stoning sequence and can step back from the experience and give it the perspective the film lacks. Rated R for a disturbing sequence of cruel and brutal violence, and brief strong language.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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8 thoughts on “The Stoning of Soraya M.

  1. Sean Williams

    depicts the barbaric Islamic practice of stoning a woman to death for adultery

    Just for clarification — the punishment for zina (adultery) varies widely, as do the interpretations of the Sharia (law), which is an extrapolation from Qu’ran and is not holy writ itself.

    Is there an agenda here? They’re entitled to one, sure. Similarly, we as the audience are entitled to know it.

    Put that one down on the list of things that offend me: filmmakers who conceal their agendas.

  2. Sara

    I would reccomend this movie to everyone who cares about what is going on in the world.
    Stoning still happens, this was just a story on one case.
    The review is rather odd because since there was a book written about this then we should all forget that this is still happening? Unlike Ken I was impressed with this movie.

  3. mary uk

    I’m guessing the negative comment came from a man
    and vice versa.

  4. T

    This movie was “too crude” and the “Passion” wasn’t? Hypocrite. What is the matter with the majority of men that watched this movie? Was your precious male ego hurt? (I am a man) They didn’t create scheming villains or legal manipulation that is how these people, men in those countries behave. It’s a harsh look into the reality of other cultures. Now lick your male ego and go home.

  5. Ken Hanke

    Wow, the three people who actually saw this movie sure take it personally.

  6. Ken Hanke

    Not particularly, though I find some pretty dubious assertions here.

  7. QueGee

    I’ll go ahead and disclose that I “liked” this movie — as much as one can “like” figuratively having their heart wrenched out of their chest — and I think it’s important to watch. However, it’s not without its flaws, and Mr. Hanke does a pretty good job of dissecting the entire film.

    Aside from that, what caused me to comment here was reading the earlier comments that came before mine. So many of the people commenting here seem to have misunderstood Mr. Hanke’s review that I’m downright mystified.

    Here’s just a few for starters:

    T, Mr. Hanke never said ‘The Stoning of…’ was “too crude” while ‘The Passion’ wasn’t. He merely states (and I quote): “Along the same lines, we’re entitled to know that a film with a nearly 20-minute-long, incredibly graphic stoning as its centerpiece was co-produced by Stephen McEveety, who produced The Passion of the Christ (2004). That should let you know the level of graphic depiction you’re in for.” He’s just telling you they’re similar, and that’s something to be considered if you want to see this film. He didn’t say “The Passion is better than The Stoning, and given a choice right now, I’d watch it instead.”

    Sara, Mr. Hanke doesn’t say we should dismiss the film because it was made based on a book written in 1994 about an incident that took place in 1986, but rather that because there’s no mention of the date (or how/if things have changed) in a film made by a company that usually pushes a “conservative” Christian agenda, he wonders why they waited until right now to make the film, and why they never mention when the stoning took place. Mr. Hanke himself gives the movie 3 out of 5 stars, which isn’t really a “fail”, but rather a comment on his own opinion and ability to process how it was constructed in and of itself, overall cultural significance notwithstanding.

    Mary, I don’t even understand what you’re responding to, but I will tell you this: being blindly sexist toward men doesn’t really help women. Yeah, we women have to speak up for our rights, but having men work with us as allies is certainly more conducive to our mutual uplift.

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