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Review: “The Stoning of Soraya M.” (2008)

As the title asserts, Cyrus Nowrasteh’s “The Stoning of Soraya M.” is a film about Soraya (Mozhan Marnò), an Iranian woman sentenced to death by stoning. That should be enough warning to scare away the weak-stomached. What the title does not do, however, is ready viewers for Soraya’s death, an unbroken 20-minute sequence that rivals “The Passion of the Christ” in its unblinking brutality. These scenes are bloody and cruel, and they are bookended by hopelessness. Underneath that hopelessness there’s the growing terror that comes from realizing that there’s no way to stop what’s coming.

Why begin a review with such grim talk? Because “The Stoning of Soraya M.” is an emotionally draining, rough experience and viewers interested to learn Zoraya’s tragic story should be prepared for what they’ll see. Nowrasteh, who adapted the film from French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam’s 1994 bestseller, doesn’t back away from the violence. He even takes pains to amplify it, evident in trickling blood that sounds like a stream. The story Nowrasteh tells is not subtle and he has no interest in prettying up the ugliness to make “The Stoning of Soraya M.” go down easier. Such commitment to his message — voiced poignantly by Marnò, who implores the friends, neighbors, even family gathered in the square, “how can you do this anyone?” — might be seen as admirable. The bloodshed serves a point, and some points can’t be made with a slap on the wrist. Some demand a more forceful blow.

Where the heavy-handedness becomes a problem is in the script’s treatment of its male characters. With few exceptions, the villains are wholly evil and the victims are wholly innocent. Nowrasteh works in absolutes, powering through to his message at the expense of character development. The clearest example of this is Ali (Navid Negahban), Zoraya’s brutish husband. Eager to make a 14-year-old villager in Kupayeh, Iran, his wife but unwilling to support two wives, he insists Zoraya give him a divorce. He attempts to pawn her off on one man after another, including the town’s scheming mullah/clergyman (Ali Pourtash). He turns her sons against her; he threatens and insults her. Still she resists, knowing he’ll leave her and her daughters to starve and knowing she can’t support a family on her wages. Marnò, in these earliest scenes, creates a noble woman who knows her place but who will not stay in it when her children’s wellbeing is at stake. 

Owing to Ali’s inherent villainy, his insistence turns dark, and he draws the mullah and an innocent widower, Hashem (Parvis Sayyad), into a plot to name Soraya an adulteress. Despite the fervent protests of her more outspoken aunt Zahra (the luminous Shohreh Aghdashloo), Soraya’s conviction is sealed nearly as soon as the rumors hit the streets — and Zahra makes sure that Freidoune (James Caviezel), the journalist trapped in Kupayeh when his car breaks down, gets down every word. His presence sounds like Hollywood spin, but it happened that way: his car stalling, Zahra desperately flagging him down, him giving Zoraya a voice through his book. Caviezel, like Negahban and Pourtash, has no room to develop his character, though, and his role in the Zoraya’s story seems less important, less striking, than it really was. 

For all these faults, there remains immense power in “The Stoning of Soraya M.” in Joel Ransom’s spare, artful photography and in Aghdashloo’s fiery performance. He finds seemingly innocuous shots that speak louder than pages of dialogue, like one of Marnò’s image in a cracked mirror, a woman broken, useless to Islamic society as a cracked mirror is to the person gazing into it. Or the opening frames of Zahra shooing dogs away from what looks to be a pile of rags, then painstakingly washing the sand from a human bone. Aghdashloo is an actress who radiates warmth and vitality (marvel at her work in “House of Sand and Fog”); she commands the camera. She tells the reluctant Freidoune, “Hear my story first. You will know why you should listen.” She’s may as well be talking to us, for in her tenacious performance we hear the voices of every woman told to swallow her fate and keep quiet. In her performance, we find reason to care.

Grade: B