The Stoning of Soraya M. (Cyrus Nowrasteh, 2008): USA

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

the-stoning-of-soraya-m1Some stories have a gravity that allows them to scream their message to the world without raising their voice above a whisper.  Their power can be emphasized by the simplicity of the vehicle that carries it.  The story at the center of The Stoning of Soraya M., based upon the book by Freidoune Sahebjam which is itself based upon a true story, is such a story.  Unfortunately writer/director Cyrus Nowrasteh did not have faith in the strength of the tale, and its powerful core is smothered in a morass of caricatures and forced suspense.

The story is simple, though horrifying.  Soraya (Mozhan Marnò), an Iranian woman and the mother of four children, is rejected by her abusive husband as he lusts after a young girl.  She denies him divorce, fearing that her daughters will starve.  When she is asked by her village elders to help care for a man who has just lost his wife, he sees an opportunity to rid himself of her.  He accuses her of adultery, pursuing his goal through lies, blackmail and threats.  Under the extreme form of Islamic Sharia law practiced in the remote community, the sentence for adultery is death.

I’m going to break with tradition at this point and take my review past the first act of the film.  If you don’t want to hear anything about the rest of the film, just skip to the last paragraph and make up your own mind about whether or not you want to see the film.  But heed my warning – past this point there are spoilers.

I feel comfortable discussing the whole film as the title of the film obviously announces its inevitable outcome, as does the film’s opening scene in which Soraya’s aunt, Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo), gathers up human bones to bury in a shallow grave.  We can be in no doubt as to the outcome of the events which will unfold in this world where women have no rights – the stoning to death of Soraya.  What we watch then, told in flashback to a visiting journalist who Zahra hopes will take Soraya’s story out into the world, is the buildup to her downfall.

The main problems I have with this film, as mentioned above, are twofold.  The first are the character depictions in the film.  Almost all of them are so extreme as to render them cartoon-like.  Soraya’s husband is one step away from twirling his mustache and delivering a throaty “Muahahahahaha” as he roars through the dusty streets in his sports car.  Zahra, on the other hand, is a shining beacon of righteous feminism, apparently unperturbed by the risks inherent in expressing herself thusly in the world she inhabits.  Now, I’m not for a moment suggesting that Soraya’s husband was anything other than an utterly despicable excuse for a human being, nor that Zahra was less than a forthright woman fighting for the life of her niece and the rights of women at terrible personal risk, but painting them with such broad strokes diffuses their impact.  I should feel that these are real people, but I just don’t.

My second issue is with the moments of excessive melodrama that the film uses.  In particular, as we move towards the stoning, the film utilizes a series of interruptions and distractions, which all seem designed to offer us a glimmer of hope, the chance that things may not go the way we know they must.  But you cannot build suspense if the outcome is inevitable and so things feel forced and contrived.  It cheapens the film, turning a lesson in the evil that people do into a thrill ride.

All of this is can be put aside for a moment when the execution actually occurs.  Depicted in a direct and brutal (though according to the director it pales in comparison to the real thing) fashion, as it utterly deserves, it is a sickening spectacle which any right minded person should and will find hard to stomach.  As the rocks begin to thud into the half buried woman, the horrors of mob mentality, and of religious beliefs perverted by the desires of men, are rendered in graphic detail.  I’ve watched potentially worse acts carried out in outlandish horror films, but the fact that such stonings still occur in this world makes this far more sickening than anything a slasher director could imagine.  Yet even this is unnecessarily drawn out at the end, allowing the director one last, bloody, flourish before Soraya breathes her last.  It is unnecessary and detracts from the films power.

So, what to make of this film?  Certainly as a piece of cinema these flaws, along with various plot holes (for instance, Zhara recalls events she was not present for) make the film merely competent at best.  As a way of bringing the harsh reality of the appalling conditions in which some women exist the film has far greater merit.  So, worth watching, but Soraya M’s tragic life deserves a better mouthpiece.

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