By JANE WILSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published August 6, 2009
“The Stoning of Soraya M,” from director Cyrus Nowrasteh, is a haunting depiction of life in Iran during the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini. The film is based on a book of the same name by French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam, who came across the story while working in Iran in 1986. While staying respectful to the Islamic religion, the filmmakers expose some of the barbaric brutality that is allowed to exist in the name of tradition.
The film opens as Sahebjam’s car breaks down in an isolated Iranian valley. The journalist, played by Jim Caviezel, is towed to the nearest town where he convinces the local mechanic to fix the car immediately so he can reach the border. He soon realizes that all is not well in the village. The mayor and the local mullah are far too curious about his intentions and warn him away from Zahra, a village woman whose appeals to the journalist are dismissed as craziness by the male village leaders. Eventually, though, Zahra convinces Sahebjam to listen as she tells the story of her niece, Soraya, who had recently been stoned to death in that very village.
The events leading up to Soraya’s tragic death are shown. Her husband, Ali, is a vicious man with a wandering eye. He has set his sights on a pretty 14-year-old girl with a wealthy family in the city, and he wants to leave Soraya and their daughters to live in poverty while he and their sons move on to a new life. The mullah is complicit in Ali’s plans and tries to convince Soraya to grant a divorce, mainly because he wants Soraya for himself. Soraya’s only support is her aunt, an independent widow in the village. The younger woman refuses the divorce because she does not want to accept the mullah’s offer, nor does she want her daughters to suffer. Eventually, though, Ali comes up with a plan to accuse Soraya of adultery, a crime punishable by stoning under strict Islamic law.
One of the most stunning aspects of the story is the pervasive misogyny inherent in the culture. The women have no recourse to what happens to them. Although Zahra warns Soraya about the plot against her, Soraya does not believe the men could be so evil and does not take any action. One feels, however, that even if Soraya had tried to prevent the plot from going forward, the story would end tragically for her no matter what she would have done. Her fate is sealed by the easy and senseless brutality displayed by her husband. As Soraya is accused, she is asked to prove her innocence. She is, understandably, confused as to how she could prove her innocence of something she did not do. The town’s mayor explains that men are, indeed, innocent until proven guilty, but women, when accused, are considered guilty until proven innocent.
This story climaxes, of course, with the depiction of the stoning. Buried to her waist in the earth, Soraya is pelted with rocks (large enough to injure, but not too large as to kill her too quickly) by a mob of angry men from the village—joined by a few women who are also excited by the promise of violence. That the stoning is led by Soraya’s father and young sons, as well as her husband, makes the scene even more wrenching. The filmmakers do not spare the audience in this crucial scene. It is brutal, and it is graphic, underscoring the barbaric nature of this punishment.
The cast of “The Stoning of Soraya M” does a fine job with some difficult roles. As Soraya, Mozhan Marnó is a long-suffering wife who sometimes bends, but never breaks, under the brutal rule of her husband. David Diaan is also a standout as Ebrahim, the town’s mayor. He conveys the conflict of a man who seems to try to do what is right, but who ultimately falls victim to the pressure of the situation.
The film, however, belongs to the two characters at the opposing poles of the conflict. As Ali, Navid Negahban is believably evil as a sadistic narcissist. One of the most disturbing aspects of the story is his relationship with his two sons. He treats Soraya worse than an animal in front of them and turns them against her because it is his right. He does it on a whim that turns out to be pointless. In that way, and in how the two boys adopt their father’s brutality and participate in their mother’s death, we see how the violence and misogyny is perpetuated.
At the other end of the spectrum is Soraya’s aunt, Zhara, played by Shohreh Aghdashloo. The actress conveys the pain and futility of her attempts to help the younger woman. We see in her eyes that she understands the essential inequality of life in that culture. She also knows how to work around it, but even so, her best efforts are not enough to save her niece.
“The Stoning of Soraya M” is not an easy movie to watch—it is violent and disturbing. It is, however, an important film to see. According to Amnesty International, the practice of stoning still occurs in spite of an official moratorium on the practice in 2002. Most of the victims are women.
Jane Wilson, a local writer and movie enthusiast, holds a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia. She is a parishioner at St. Pius X Church, Conyers.