For the many historians who view human civilization as an endless cycle of repeated mistakes and injustices, nothing can be more frustrating than seeing the way women continue to be one of the most easily-targeted victims of corrupt patriarchal systems. In the centuries since the Salem Witch trials and the first publication of The Scarlet Letter, the drive to ensure women are perceived as equal members of human society and can define themselves on their own terms has made great strides. Yet it is still possible, even today, to hear a story as sad as that of Soraya M. and know it is not just an aberration in our current world.
Soraya was a young Iranian woman stoned to death by her friends and neighbors during the period following the 1979 Iranian revolution. Her story was eventually heard and transmitted to the wider world by a French-Iranian writer named Freidoune Sahebjam, and his book on the subjectThe Stoning of Soraya M., was later turned into a film of the same name by Iranian-American filmmaker Cyrus Nowrasteh. Both saw the tale as an ideal opportunity to raise awareness of continuing injustices against women around the world.
Early in the film version, Sahebjam (played by a prosthetic-nose wearing Jim Caveziel) finds himself in a small village in Iran, where his car has broken down. The repairs will apparently take a while, which gives the reporter time to attract the attention of the locals. For some reason, the local mayor (David Diann) and mullah (Ali Pourtash) seem wary of this journalist from the outside world, especially when a village woman named Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo, who non-Iranian audiences may remember from House of Sand and Fog) says she wants to tell him something. The men assure Sahebjam the old woman is crazy, but with nothing better to do and his journalistic curiosity piqued, the traveler decides to meet with her privately and record her story on tape in case it proves interesting.
Zahra’s story concerns her niece, Soraya (Mozhan Marno), who (and considering the title, this is giving nothing away) was stoned to death only the day before. In the movie-long flashback Zahra introduces, Soraya is the wife of a bullying, womanizing villager named Ali (Navid Negahban) who wants out of their marriage so he can wed a younger wife (younger meaning 14-years-old). A powerful man with deep connections to the revolutionary government and plenty of dirt on most of his colleagues, he becomes frustrated with Soraya’s Zahra-supported decision not to grant him a divorce, a request she denies because it will mean she and her two daughters will be left without enough income to survive.
Ali and his cronies suggest that Soraya start doing housework for the elderly widower Hashem (Parviz Sayadd) in order to make some money of her own. However, Ali soon realizes how easily certain rumors could be spread about a married-woman who frequently visits a single man, and comes up with a much more sinister plan to rid himself of Soraya.
From that point on, Soraya’s fate is sealed, and it is only a matter of time before she will be put to death by her fellow villagers, thanks to the accusation of adultery. The film is produced by one of the men (other than Mel Gibson) behind Caveziel’s most famous movie, The Passion of the Christ, and The Stoning of Soraya M.resembles that film in the way it slowly builds to a drawn-out and bloody conclusion that the audience knows is coming but still can’t believe is possible in this seemingly rational world.
Something about the pacing, however, is not quite right. The most egregious flaw is the amount of time spent on Soraya’s story versus the attempts of Sahebjam to get the story out of Iran. When a film has two relatively simple but interconnecting stories to tell, a back-and-forth chronology is often the most effective way to keep the viewer’s interest. In The Stoning of Soraya M., however, the overly-long depiction of Soraya’s last days takes up the bulk of the movie, with Sahebjam’s arrival and escape from the village with the whistle-blowing tape providing only the slightest of bookends.
The stoning itself is the film’s most important moment, but it goes on for far longer than it should. Public stoning seems to be one of the most awful methods of execution imaginable, and by providing a raw and bloody look at how such an event actually transpires the makers of The Stoning of Soraya M. are certainly fulfilling their goal of bringing much-needed exposure to an all-too-common atrocity.
On the other hand, the over-the-top score (a problem throughout the film), and the decision to have each and every major member of the community, one-by-one, pick up a stone and struggle with his conscience before hurling it at the half-buried Soraya’s face, allows the scene to start crossing the line between drama and melodrama before it ends, something more restrained editing could have helped avoid.
Most of the blame for Soraya’s fate rests with Ali and the lack of courage the village leaders exhibit by not standing-up to a man powerful enough to ruin their own lives if they cross him. The production notes point out that Nowrasteh wanted to make a film about injustice that could be understood universally, but his decision to focus on the way a person in power corrupts societal rules to achieve his own ends, rather than delve into the ways the un-balanced societal roles enforced by the restrictions of the sharia law the villagers practice make such injustices possible, leaves a hole in the moral subtext of the film.
As it stands, the primary injustice is that Soraya was falsely convicted, not that a woman can be stoned for falling asleep in another man’s home or that the man involved escapes any punishment, an idea which should be abhorrent even if the accusations were true. The emphasis on just a few characters (especially on Zahra as the only truly heroic villager) means the participation of the rest of the town in the act comes off as simply the product of mob-induced frenzy. Getting to know the rest of the villagers and their actual views on morality and punishment would probably have created a much richer context for the eventual tragedy.
Still, while these issues may prevent The Stoning of Soraya M. from being a truly great film, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good one. As well as revealing an atrocity that often happens in areas obscured from the outside world’s awareness, the movie is at times visually compelling, whether during the striking shots of the hilly landscape surrounding the secret Arabian location where it was filmed, or the harder-to-watch moments as Soraya is turned into a bloody corpse in the bright light of the midday sun.
The acting is solid across the board and despite the generally careful tone there are daring moments, like the surreal (and apparently historically accurate) arrival in the village of a traveling circus just moments before Soraya’s sentence is carried out, that for the most part succeed.
The DVD extras include a “making of” documentary that will be of interest to anyone looking to know more about this particular stoning or the oppression of women in general. It also details some of the hardships the American producers had making a movie in Farsi, featuring Iranian actors, and filmed in a remote Arabian location. Overall, the cast and crew have surmounted the obstacles they encountered and made a simple but mostly effective movie about a subject that is, unfortunately, all-too-relevant.