Acting, powerful story save ‘Stoning’
By Kwaak Je-yup
Some stories are so shocking they need little to no embellishment for the silver screen. Such is the case for “The Stoning of Soraya M.,” the 2008 film by Iranian-American director Cyrus Nowrasteh that opened in selected theaters here this week.
The movie faithfully follows the polemical 1990 book by French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam “La Femme Lapidee,” in which a husband frames his wife for adultery and gets her stoned to death in order to marry a 14-year-old girl.
The film opens with Sahebjam (Jim Caviezel, (“The Passion of the Christ,” 2004) in Iran, arriving in the city of Kuhpayeh to have his car repaired. He is in the country some time after the Iranian Revolution, looking for stories. He is approached by a woman named Zahra (Shoreh Agdashloo, “House of Sand and Fog,” 2003), who wants to tell him something horrifying that happened in the previous day. The townsmen quickly brush her aside and display overfriendly behavior towards the journalist, which lends weight to his suspicion. When Zahra and he meet again at her house, she talks about the tragic fate of her niece Soraya (Mozhan Marno), punished for a crime she did not commit for the benefit of her husband Ali (Navi Negahban). The rest of the running time is occupied by flashbacks until Sahebjam is ready to leave with what he has recorded.
The actors — with the notable exception of Caviezel in an almost negligible role — are superb in their respective capacities. They interact naturally with one another, like real neighbors with long histories between them. Child actors fit in as well as their adult co-stars.
Agdashloo shines in her role, aided by her panache, elegant traditional outfits and strikingly beautiful face. Most of all, her restraint — even her fingers do not exaggerate a motion — is what makes this movie so effective in portraying women’s subordinate position in society: Even though her wisdom and age make her the only woman who can freely talk back to men, she always ends up obeying the order of the male political and religious leaders.
When it was first released, a number of critics complained about the penultimate scene, where Soraya is tried and tortured to death. Many found it troubling for the film to indulge so much on the cruelty, even calling it pornographic. And they are right — to an extent.
The stoning sequence does feel a few minutes too long, but Nowrasteh is not emulating Quentin Tarantino, the American director who always manages to create attractive — rather than repulsive — pain on screen.
The director piles on brutality bit by bit: her father calls her a prostitute and throws rocks at her, albeit a little off target; her two sons are encouraged by Ali to follow suit, and they prove more accurate than their grandfather; Ali maintains his scornful smile.
There is an overbearing sense of terror in the people, but they smother it with misguided religious belief and continue to throw rocks at Soraya. (As blood is splattered all over Soraya’s white dress, the townsmen chant and praise God.)
Nowrasteh could have taken creative departures from the book, surely, to develop some of the characters even further. What is the motivation of the 14-year-old girl, who seems to want Ali as much as he wants her, for example? Were there any punishments for the city’s leaders after the book’s publication? But the movie in its current form raises awareness about the absurdity of these events, which more than justifies its value.
“The Stoning of Soraya M.” opened Thursday in selected theaters. Runs for 114 minutes. Rated 18 and over. Distributed by SYComad.
Two and a half stars out of four.