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.