Let’s see: a movie about the cruel justice women face under Islamic Sharia law? Anyone?
How about a drama based on a true story of a woman in modern-day Iran stoned to death by her village’s men, after being found guilty of adultery by a fundamentalist tribunal based on flimsy, fabricated evidence?
Please – don’t all crowd around the ticket booth at once.
Even as the Iranian government has shown its contempt for both women and the idea of a free election, too much of that country – indeed, of that region – still enforces virtually tribal dictates about what women can and can’t do. The burka, the chador, the honor killing, stoning – the legacy of this kind of blinkered fundamentalism is well-documented.
Director Cyrus Nowrasteh’s movie, “The Stoning of Soraya M,” based on real events, wants to open eyes to the barbaric legal system that still allows stoning. Stoning, apparently, is cheaper and easier than lynching because a) everyone can join in and b) rocks are free.
In trying to bring focus to this practice, Nowrasteh devotes long minutes to the event itself. He not only dwells on the viscously bleeding, moaning form of the woman being punished – he lets the scene go on and on in all its shocking, gory horror.
That seems to be his signature in this torturous drama: sequences that don’t know when to end. He carefully sets the scene – an unfaithful husband named Ali (Navid Negahban); his powerless wife Soraya (Mozhan Marno), who is unwilling to divorce him speedily and live in penury; and a culture where women seem to have the same rights as household pets. You get the picture.
The story is told by Soraya’s aunt Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo), who buttonholes a journalist whose car handily breaks down near her dusty mountaintop village. Shield your eyes and pretend you don’t recognize Jim Caviezel doing a watery French accent as the journalist; after a couple of scenes at the film’s beginning, he disappears until the end.
The rest of the movie is her telling him the story of poor, martyr-like Soraya. Saddled with a boorish husband, Soraya discovers that, when she won’t cut him loose to marry a 14-year-old, he is willing to concoct a death-penalty case against her to get her out of the way. Which, in Iran, amounts to uttering the words, “I think my wife is having an affair.” Guilty. Case closed.
Nowrasteh takes his time – lots of time – establishing what a lying sack of dog mess (as someone so elegantly put it recently) this husband is. The filmmaker devotes equal time showing how blameless and helpless Soraya is. Zahra is willing to get in the faces of these single-minded men, but she’s only one argumentative woman in a culture owned and operated by men (in the name of Allah, of course). It’s a study in piety and hypocrisy, a point that’s driven home in the first 15 minutes and then hammered at for the rest of the film.
Is it overkill? Well, put it this way: Is it true? If it’s true, it’s not overkill. If it’s exaggerated, then one anti-defamation league or another ought to be getting its pants in a bunch right about now.
“The Stoning of Soraya M” is a movie that beats you over the head with facts about the treatment of women in the Middle East – facts that anyone who’s been paying attention should be aware of. And if you haven’t been paying attention, I somehow doubt you’re going to accidentally find your way to this movie. As it is, it’s so relentless that it’s hard to imagine anyone willingly seeing it on purpose.