The Stoning of Soraya M.

USA (2008) Dir. Cyrus Nowrasteh

In 1986, a French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam (Jim Caviezel) is stranded in the remote Iranian village of Kuhpayeh when his car breaks down. While it is being repaired, Sahebjam is invited into the home of Zhara (Shohreh Aghdashloo) who convinces the journalist to listen to the story of the death of niece Soraya (Mozhan Marnò) by stoning the day before. Such is the controversy of this tale, Sahebjam faces immediate danger when trying to leave the village.

This harrowing adaptation of Freidoune Sahebjam’s 1990 book La Femme Lapidée is based on real events, presenting a stunning indictment of the lack of human rights afforded to women in the Middle East, and the horrific injustice meted out to our tragic heroine as a result of selfishness, corruption and deceit; a familiar theme but never before told in such a graphic and emotionally unsettling manner. This is not an easy film to watch but it is a painfully honest and powerful one. Its condemnation of the barbaric act of stoning a woman to death on a trumped up charge is unmistakeable, but the intent is not to engender anti-Islam sentiments, rather to expose and shame the egocentric corruption and the consequences of a distorted interpretation of the Quran by the myopic zealots of a patriarchal society.

The tragic story begins with Soraya refusing her husband Ali (Navid Negahban) a divorce so he can marry a 14 year-old girl without supporting two families. Soraya’s refusal result in violence and his turning their two sons against their mother (they also have two daughters). When local mechanic Hashem (Parviz Sayyad) is suddenly widowed with a mentally handicapped son to look after, Soraya is hired to cook and clean for him. Along with the village Mullah (Ali Pourtash) and the mayor Ebrahim (David Diaan), they falsify an accusation of adultery between Soraya and Hashem, hold a trumped up trial resulting in Soraya being found guilty and, as we know from the film’s title, is stoned to death.

As much as the above synopsis makes for a distressing read, it makes for an equally distressing watch due to its roots in reality, but a compelling one, thanks to the commanding and dignified performances of Shohreh Aghdashloo and Mozhan Marnò. Director Cyrus Nowrasteh is an American of Iranian descent which explains the slight Hollywood touches to the production side of the film, notably the often intrusive and syrupy soundtrack and the slightly cheesy ending, but on the whole the film is rich with authenticity to allow chilling honesty of the story and themes to reverberate, while the dialogue is delivered in Persian by a largely Iranian/Iranian descended cast – Jim Caviezel aside.

Women are very much the victims in this tale but not the typical silent victims, content to be subservient to the biased laws or society. Both Soraya and Zhara are strong women who won’t be silenced and stand up for their rights, despite being constantly told they have none. Zhara is the most defiant, being an older woman who had lived through the draconian restrictions placed on women following the Iranian revolution and for whom her understanding of God and the Quran is more “pure” as opposed to the pro-masculine version the men have adopted. When both sides of this dispute proclaim “God is good” it is made clear different meanings are behind this one statement. When her voice is not heard by the villagers during Soraya’s final days, Zhara uses her brain and has Sahebjam tape their conversation for him to share with the outside which of course he later did.

For Soraya, her strength is shown in her not bending to her evil husband’s will and holding her head up high despite being unfairly vilified by all around her. Soraya is fighting an uphill battle from the very start with Ali’s bullying while a key scene later in the film puts her fruitless plight into perspective. As she protests her guilt should be proven, Ebrahim reminds Soraya that the law states in the advent of an accusation of adultery against the husband, the wife has to prove his infidelity while an accused wife must prove her own innocence. Ali flaunting his teenage lover in public (the circumstance as to how they met is equally salacious) is apparently insufficient evidence. Outspoken, but not as vociferous as her aunt, Soraya takes her unjust punishment with a quiet dignity, a martyr for her fellow women who don’t dare speak up against the daily oppression. Her impassioned accusatory speech prior to her execution is a powerful and shaming scene which sums up the entire message of the film, when even Soraya’s own father (Vachik Mangassarian) disowns her and throws the first stone at her.

The stoning sequence is one of the hardest scenes I have ever had to watch. The sheer brutality of this simple act of violence notwithstanding, to see a strong beautiful woman – a wife, mother, daughter, niece and friend to the villagers – bound and buried in the ground to her chest turned into a limp bloody mess by a baying crowd of men, her white dress soaked in crimson, is disheartening. As much as this is a wholly uncomfortable watch, Nowrasteh needs to be applauded for his unflinching and scarily realistic depiction of this barbaric act for maximum impact. It will appal you; it will anger you; it may even make you cry but the stark realism is that such practices persist to this day around the world – regardless of faith – and this film is a valuable weapon in exposing this terrible fact.

The Stoning of Soraya M. is an exceptional and important film within the milieu of courageous exposé cinema that needs to be seen. Satisfying entertainment this is not – the images of the stoning are exceptionally haunting; this alone is likely to be off putting. If challenging cinema is your bag then this film gets a firm recommendation.