A searing indictment of Islamic “Sharia” laws and rural Middle Eastern barbarism, “The Stoning of Soraya M.” is a surefire sock-in-the-gut motion picture that’s grueling to watch, yet perhaps impossible to ignore. I’m sure the prospect of sitting down with a movie concerning the painstaking ritual of stoning comes across as a gigantic NEGATORY on the average “Movies to See” list of multiplex adventures, yet this picture is worth a viewing, if only to be allowed entrance into the darker nuances of unspoken Islamic law.
Freidoune (James Caviezel, buried under a giant fake nose) is an Iranian-born, French-based journalist driving through his homeland sometime during the mid-1980s. On his way to the border, Freidoune is hit with an overheated radiator, forced to tow to the nearest town for repair. There trying to get some work done during the wait, Freidoune is accosted by Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo), a local desperate to meet with the writer in private. Taking her invitation, Zahra begins to tell the story of Soraya (Mozhan Marno), an abused wife to Ali (Navid Negahban), who watches as her husband visits prostitutes and plans to marry a 14-year-old girl. For Ali, the only opportunity to rid himself of his wife is to make an accusation of adultery, coercing the local Mullah (Ali Pourtash) and others to sentence Soraya to death by stoning, leaving the young mother of four and her aunt Zahra with little recourse.
“Stoning” is a roughly melodramatic film with a mission to project injustice at a deafening level, hoping its depiction of heart-stopping violence will reverberate through moviegoers, shedding a light on the practice of honor killings in the Middle East. Co-written and directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh, “Stoning” is a brutal film, though it sometimes leaps over the top to make cartoon points of villainy, especially in the character of Ali, who seems more suited squaring off against James Bond than he does as the devious antagonist of this picture. The expansive dramatic approach makes sense, even at its most cringe-inducing, as “Stoning” is a picture created solely to disturb and provoke, not educate. With those goals in mind, the film is a smashing success.
For 75 minutes, “Stoning” builds the fraudulent case against Soraya, depicting the woman as a pure victim of Iranian culture, unable to rebuke her abusers due to her sex. While Zahra comprehends Ali’s scheme and fights to thwart the sanctioned murder with all her might, all Soraya can do is watch the insanity unfold before her eyes, powerless to convince her village of her obvious innocence. “Stoning” observes a well-documented arena of manipulation and religious totality that never fails to amaze. Nowrasteh delivers big on harrowing turns of injustice for Soraya, leading to the inevitable titular event.
The actual stoning sequence is a nightmarish 30-minute-long parade of agony that isn’t for the faint of heart. Nowrasteh wants the viewer to feel every act of cruelty, heartlessness, and violence; a trail of tears turned into a literal circus when a group of clowns show up midway into the vicious festivities, crashing the stoning with promises of entertainment. Technically, the sequence makes use of some impressive make-up effects and editorial choices (though the clichéd step-printing photography is an embarrassment), and the intensity of the act is overwhelming. We are forced to watch an innocent woman slaughtered for her husband’s sins and, like the women of the village understand, there’s nothing that can stop it.
I have some concern for the ultimate impact of “Stoning.” The film doesn’t make a strong enough case for the rest of Iran and other permutations of Islam that strongly reject these archaic practices. “Stoning” offers a slice of shocking, inhuman behavior, and some, if not all of the paying audience might assume the worst about the greater populace. This film is a strong brew, and should be viewed with a mind toward narrow dramatic intent, not catchall horrors summing up a nation of people. Digest it with some distance (not impossible, but a taxing effort), and “The Stoning of Soraya M.” is an unforgettable snapshot of injustice that demands further examination.