“The Stoning of Soraya M.” – 4.5 Stars

There are sights, sounds, and scenes in cinema that will stay with you long after you leave the darkened theater. Most would agree that it is the mark of artistic film-making when an audience is imbued with such impressions. The Stoning of Soraya M. contains many moments such as these and they are haunting. The noise made by dozens of rocks being knocked together as the village’s boys collect ammunition for an execution, a flock of startled birds erupting into flight over a young mother and her daughters, the slumped over husk of a woman in front of a seething crowd of angry men with rocks. This is a remarkable film, but
it is not a lovely or enjoyable experience. Much like Schindler’s List, it is a film whose bones are made not by inspiring feelings of joy in its viewers, but by convincing the audience of the importance of witnessing and remembering horrific events.

The film centers around Soraya, a young Iranian wife with four children whose husband wants to marry a 14-year-old girl in another town. He cannot support two wives and so he desires to rid himself of his current wife. Soraya quickly finds out that there are few barriers in Iranian Islamic society that will keep her husband from getting his way. His plan is to take his two young sons with him to live with his new wife, leaving his Soraya and his daughters on their own to fend for themselves. He decides that he will falsely accuse his wife of adultery, thus guaranteeing the dissolution of his marriage. He recruits help from the “pillars of the community” by blackmailing the local Imam, who is a former convict in hiding, and by badgering the mayor of the village. The only person that Soraya has in her corner is her aunt, Zahra, commandingly played by Shohreh Aghdashloo (24, The House of Sand and Fog). Zahra uses her influence in the village to try to protect her niece and to keep tabs on Ali, Soraya’s husband. But despite Zahra’s attempts to thwart evil intentions, the film moves with the determination of a Greek tragedy towards the titular event.

The stoning scene is violent and hard to watch. There are no punches pulled in this scene and I don’t believe there should be. This evil act is shown in an unflinching fashion as if to caution the viewers against shirking their duty as witnesses to this brutal travesty of justice. This not a film for the squeamish. While the violence is not gratuitous, it is unapologetically present. The acting is very good. As previously mentioned, Ms. Aghdashloo is a gravelly whirlwind and turns in a performance worthy of an Oscar nod. Soraya is played by newcomer Mozhan Marno, a Los Angeles native recently seen in Traitor and Charlie Wilson’s War. She handles a difficult role with relative ease and is believable in her role. I feel that she missed the mark a little bit in her final speech, but other than that I had no complaints. Her husband Ali, played by Navid Negahban (Charlie Wilson’s War) is diabolical. The look of barely-repressed joy that he carries through the execution is one of the more horrifying parts of the film. Jim Cavaziel makes a cameo appearance as Freidoune, a journalist who stumbles into the village in need of car repairs. The real-life Freidoune took the story that he was told by Zahra and turned it into a best-selling book with the same title as the film. It’s clear that Cavaziel’s involvement based on his support of the film and the story it tells. He is one of the minor characters in the film and it’s doubtful that he was paid a significant amount of money, given the independent status of the studio producing the film. It is my opinion that he signed on because he believed in the script and the film receives a large shot in the arm from his presence. His casting lends a credibility that would have been lacking without him.

The script, which was adapted from Freidoune’s book by the director Cyrus Nowrasteh and his wife, is very good. The majority of the film is in Farsi, with small breaks in English, but the script and the acting are expressing enough that the language is never a barrier. The cinematography is very creative. You feel the searing heat of the sun and it adds to the oppressiveness that builds throughout the film. Overhead shots of the village show a maze of small clay and stone houses splayed over a hillside, surrounded by gorgeous desert wasteland. These shots serve to highlight the rural nature of the environment as well as the impossibility of escape for Soraya.

What I appreciated the most about Nowrasteh’s direction and script was that he creates honest portrayals of Muslims. So often in Hollywood, Muslims are either taken out of stories (ala the Tom Clancy film that replaced them with a less controversial ethnic group) or shown in such a one-sided portrayal that it is insulting to the audience. Nowrasteh does a fantastic job showing well-rounded characters. There are evil characters in this film and there are also good characters. He manages to avoid the Politically Correct deathtrap that plagues so many projects coming out of Hollywood these days. In light of recent events sparked by unfavorable portrayals of Muslims, Nowrasteh’s courageous conviction cannot be overstated.

If this film interests you at all, please go to see it in the theater. It had a very limited release in its opening weekend, but successful box office numbers and positive buzz has increased its presence significantly. I believe this film couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. The recent tumultuous election in Iran illustrates that this country and its oppressive Sharia law will continue to be an impediment to the development of civil rights for all Iranian citizens. This film, more than any in recent memory, gives voice to the cries of thousands of Iranian women who have been deprived of justice and silenced prematurely. By serving as a witness to the events depicted in the film, we can demonstrate in a small way that we will not continue to avert our eyes while atrocities are committed in the name of “justice”.

Thank you for taking the time to read this review.

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