Stoning of Soraya M., The

A movie made in the long, estimable tradition of social protest cinema, “The Stoning of Soraya M.” is a chronicle of a barbaric form of punishment against “deviant” women.  Based on a true story, it's a tale of persecution of one innocent woman, executed by a whole village as a public act, which underlines the scary issue of mob rule and collective tyranny. 

 

The movie is inspired by Paris-based journalist Freidoune Sahebjam’s international best-seller of the same title, which first brought attention to the real Soraya.  In 1986, Soraya was buried to her waist in her hometown square and stoned to death by her fellow villagers.

 

As co-written Cyrus Nowrasteh and his wife Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh, and directed by Cyrus, the movie is so powerful in its exposition of moral outrage and social injustice that you tend to disregard its weaknesses in the narrative, dramatic and acting departments, largely a result of the filmmakers' inexperience behind the camera.

 

The movie world premiered at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival, where was chosen as a runner-up for the audience award after Danny Boyle's “Slumdog Millionaire,” which went on to win the Oscar Award last year.  After showings at the Los Angeles Film Fest next week, the indie movie will be released theatrically by Roadside Attractions. 

 

Shohreh Aghdashloo plays the heroic role of Zahra, an Iranian woman with a burning secret.  When a journalist (Jim Caviezel) is stranded in her remote village, she takes a bold chance to reveal that secret.   Soraya (Mozhan Marnò) is a kind woman whose bad marriage leads her cruel husband (who's seeking divorce) to conspire against her with charges of infidelity, an act which carries unimaginable penalty.  United in their fight of scheming, lies and deceit, Soraya and Zahra attempt to prove Soraya’s innocence in an archaic legal system that's inherently biased against women.  When all else fails, Zahra takes considerable risks in using the only weapons she posesses, her memory and fearless voice. 

 

The characters speak in Iran’s native Farsi, which contributes to the film's authenticity and immediate power.  Clearly, in their battle of prejudice and injustice, the filmmakers are using their tale as a one case study, representing numerous similar stories in other parts of the world, East as well as West. (There are several websites devoted to this issue),

 

Iranian-born star Shohreh Aghdashloo (who played an Iranian exile trying to make a new life in America in her Oscar-nominated turn in “The House of Sand and Fog”) gives a strong, creditable performance as Zahra, the savvy, outraged village woman who attempts to protect Soraya and ultimately tells her story, hoping to save other women.  

 

While her character is well developed, emphasizing her quest for truth amidst lies, betrayal and fraud, Soraya and her accusers come across as concepts, broad forces representing the opposite poles of innocence and corruption, justice and decadence.  It may be a function of the writing, but Caviezel as the journalist is too much of a passive and pallid character.

 

Moreover, the portrait of the village's male villains is too broad, lacking nuance and shading.  Deviating from this pattern is the mayor Ebrahim, a man caught in a changing time, who knows that authority now resides with the Mullah, and despite his personal judgment, does whatever he can to maintain his political position. 

The filmmakers have compacted the actual events into tight time frame, with the story of the accusation, trial and execution occurring in one day, but the narrative, like many other message pictures, still lacks dramatic momentum.  In general, the movie stresses the prevalence of peer pressure in rigid patriarchal societies to maintain male unity at all costs.

 

That said, despite its somber nature and heavy ideological intent, the picture is not dreary, and a number of colorful sequences add to the tale's vividness.  Reportedly, the bizarre, surreal scene, which depics a traveling circus shows up in the midst of Soraya’s execution, is also in the book and is based on fact.