The Stoning of Soraya M. (Cyrus Nowrasteh, 2009): USA

Reviewed by Byron Potau.  Viewed at The Mann Festival Theatre as part of the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival.

So often directors do not trust in the power of the story they are telling and instead infuse it with all manner of overly sentimental drivel in order to sway the audience so they do not miss the point, ultimately ruining what should be a powerful viewing experience.  Based on French/Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam’s acclaimed novel, director Cyrus Nowrasteh’s film The Stoning of Soraya M. does exactly that, entirely lacking in subtleties and turning what should have been a powerful story into occasionally laughable (though I doubt anyone would dare) kitsch.

The film, recounted by Soraya’s aunt Zahra (Shoreh Aghdashloo) to journalist Sahebjam (Jim Caviezel) when his car breaks down in their village the day after the stoning has taken place, tells the true story of Soraya (Mozhan Marno), a thirty five year old wife and mother whose husband, Ali (Navid Negahban) wants a divorce so that he can marry the young daughter of a doctor who is a prisoner slated for execution.  The doctor has made a deal with Ali, who is a guard at the prison, to help him avoid his death sentence; in return Ali can marry the doctor’s fourteen year old daughter.  Soraya will not consent to the divorce because Ali refuses to take care of her and her daughters, only consenting to take his sons with him.  Ali is also known to keep company with prostitutes and occasionally beat his wife.

When the wife of one of the villagers dies, Soraya is persuaded, at the urging of Ali and the village leaders, to help out with the cooking, laundry, and cleaning for a wage.  This way she will be able to save up enough money on her own so that she can consent to the divorce.  This, however, is not good enough for Ali who wants the divorce immediately and devises a plan to accuse Soraya of adultery–which under Islamic law is punishable by stoning.  The village leaders, including the Mullah (Ali Pourtash), who Ali coerces with the knowledge that he was once in prison, condemn Soraya and, with the rest of the town including her own father and young sons, stone her to death.

What director Nowrasteh does not seem to grasp is that all our sympathies are already with Soraya, so there is no need to sway the audience to her side by piling on the repulsiveness to characters we would naturally despise. 

Ali, a despicable character already, wears flashy clothes which are very different from the attire worn by anyone else in the film.  He also drives around a sports car, joyriding in the dusty village where hardly anyone else even has a vehicle!  Just where did a prison guard get the money to buy a car, let alone a sports car in a village that has only a couple of beat-up looking vehicles to their credit?  The only thing he is missing is a pony tail and he’ll be the perfect stereotype of midlife crisis. 

Prior to the stoning, the Mullah is seen trimming his beard and attends the stoning wearing a pair of flashy sunglasses, which is clearly meant to enrage the audience since at no other time does he wear these sunglasses despite several bright, sunny days.  Clearly Nowrasteh did not think the Mullah’s actions up to that point were outrageous enough, and felt he really needed to show that this man was not just taking part in the stoning, but looked at it more like an event that he needed to primp for.  It is about as subtle as if the Mullah had rented a tuxedo.  By the end of the film I felt these characters might as well have been twirling their mustaches every time they showed up on screen. 

The stoning scene is appropriately horrific, but it too suffers from Nowrasteh’s excessiveness.  The scene owes much to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, but those that found the torture in that film to be tasteless and excessive will conclude that the stoning scene here is many times worse.  Nowrasteh puts particular emphasis on the joy Ali gets out of stoning his wife, as he joyously smiles whenever she is hit, yells names at her, forces his young sons to throw stones, and incites everyone to throw more stones.  Nowrasteh even has Soraya barely regain consciousness so Ali can declare that “the bitch still lives!” before handing out more stones to finish her off.  This film, and particularly this scene, did not need this kind of Hollywood persuasion for the audience to see how horrific this practice is or to feel our heroine has been wronged.

The film’s only bright spot is the acting of Mozhan Marno as Soraya.  She is able to portray Soraya with dignity showing her to be a strong and caring woman, but also stubborn and unable to see the plot against her before it is too late.  The other main female character Zahra, played by Shoreh Aghdashloo, is unsympathetic from the beginning and we are never really given a chance to like her as it seems she is bitter and always looking to start a fight with the men.  Rather than making this character a strong, independent woman, it seems the filmmakers again took it too far making her come off as bitchy rather than strong.  Aghdashloo adds to this by overplaying the character, giving every line a little extra.  To make matters worse she is also given some of the worst lines, including the film’s ridiculous, eye-rolling last line.

There are many dimensions to this story including the mistreatment of women, the Sharia (Islamic laws), and the horrific and continued practice of stoning.  This is a truly harrowing story that brings to light many atrocities of which people need to be made aware, and it deserved much better.  Sadly, director Nowrasteh, though well-meaning, has botched it, creating an overblown, overly sentimental, and clichéd film.  You are probably better off reading the book.

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