This is about a crime, a serious crime, a crime against a husband and two sons, against Islam. That’s what this is about, woman.
— Ebrahim (David Diaan)
The Stoning of Soraya M. begins when reporter Freidoune Sahebjam (Jim Caviezel) arrives in the town of Kupayeh, Iran. He’s looking to have his car repaired and he’s surprised to be accosted by a very agitated Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo). Her swirling black robes hardly contain her outrage, but he’s inclined to believe the local mucky-mucks, who instruct Sahebjam to move on, more specifically, to ignore the ravings of a woman who is obviously “old” and “insane.” Though the journalist casts a lingering look toward Zahra as she’s led away, clutching her veil to her chin, he does as he’s told. At least until Zahra comes at him again — this time pssting him while he sits at a café table, insisting he come to her home to hear out her story.
That story concerns the ritual murder of her niece, Soraya (Mozhan Marnò). And so the stoning of Soraya begins again, in the form of an extended flashback detailing how she was abused by her husband and forsaken by her supposed community. “Today I am old,” Zahra says, “100 years older, but I know right from wrong. What happened here yesterday was wrong.” Zahra peers at her guest: “Start your machine,” she says. And with that, Sahebjam listens, close-ups of his sober nodding and tape recorder turning indications of his seriousness. This man, the gallant, educated, and sensitive outsider, will do right by Soraya, unlike the loathsome, fearful, and petty neighbors who killed her, the men Zahra describes as “vile dogs.”
Thus it must be in Cyrus Nowrasteh’s high-minded melodrama, based on the real-life Sahebjam’s best-selling book. The film draws a clear line between villains and victims, for the most part, its narrative orderly and unambiguous. The first flashbacks reveal Soraya as a vibrant mother of four, rebellious in the face of demands by her husband Ali (Navid Negahban), who wants a divorce so he can marry a more compliant object of lust, a 14-year-old girl now on offer from her father. She knows that if she grants the divorce, she and her two daughters will be cast off and unsupported. Better, for now, to endure the regular beatings and rapes. When Ali’s buddy, the Mullah (Ali Pourtash), offers to take Soraya off his hands, to use her as “a temporary wife, authorized fully by the laws of Islam,” she resists, as this too will leave her and the girls without a secure future.
For his part, Ali is all sullen looks and lurking presence. He instructs his two sons to follow tradition, modeling sadistic behavior toward his wife, careening in his car with audacious prostitutes, and essentially ignoring his daughters, who cower in corners. Still, she resists: when he accuses her of being a “woman who can’t put meat on the table,” she snipes that this is his fault, as she can’t make meat out of rice. He slaps her and knocks her down in front of the children, she gets up, bloodied lip trembling, and takes her daughters away, her eyes revealing her horror even as he insists she’s not allowed to “look at me that way!”
Leaving home is a bad idea, instructs Zahra when Soraya arrives on her doorstep. The film points out the relentless lack of options for women, that putting up with all manner of restrictions and insults is not a choice but an expectation. When Ali is unable to convince Soraya to leave him and so absolve him of responsibilities, he conjures a scheme to be rid of her once and for all. That is, he arranges to have Soraya employed by a recent widower, the hapless Hashem (Parviz Sayyad), on order that Ali can claim to be the victim of adultery he says he’s observed — the multiple shots of Ali watching Soraya and Hashem through windows and archways are almost comically cartoonish. Yes, yes Ali is a mean and invidious creature, which you can tell by his glowering and skulking.
Of course, Ali rouses the townspeople to the movie’s titular action, despite Zahra’s efforts to keep a lid on the percolating gossip and Ali’s overbearing odium. She appeals to the mayor, Ebrahim (David Diaan), a man she confesses with no small disgust she almost married way back when. Sadly, Zahra’s own background, the experiences that led to her own independence of mind and perpetual simmering, remains unknown — unless you count the fact that every scene shows men behaving badly.
The culmination of Ali’s particular bad behavior is the stoning, rendered here graphically and effectively. A few point-of-view shots show what Soraya might have seen, as she’s buried up to her chest and whomped repeatedly by rocks, her view blurry and red as she watches Ali crouching near to make sure she’s dead. Grim and ostentatious at the same time, the movie’s banal frame — the noble reporter, the terrible locals — cannot contain the sublime Aghdashloo. Even in the tricked-out images (warpy wide angles, running-down-streets perspectives, long, long shots of empty spaces), she sustains her signature effect: transcendent and tangible at once, entirely convincing in each moment.