Tackling a tough subject matter such as the events surrounding a barbaric stoning is never an easy task. Director Cyrus Nowrasteh displays exactly how to do that while keeping the audience engaged instead of repulsed. I had the pleasure of seeing this film and meeting Cyrus at a conference in Palm Beach, Florida this past weekend.
Freidoune Sahebjam, a French-Iranian journalist (played in film by Jim Caviezel), wrote The Stoning of Soraya M which is based on his own experience of being forced to stop in a remote Iranian village after his car broke down. He was one of the first to report on the troubles in the Bahá’í Faith community in Iran.
While waiting for his broken car to be fixed, Freidoune is approached by Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo) who is the aunt of Soraya. Zahra notices that Freidoune has a tape recorder and asks to speak with him. The townspeople assure him that she is crazy but he humors her anyway. Once the recorder is placed on the table, Zahra begins telling her nightmarish story.
Soraya (played by the beautiful Mozhan Marnò) is a married mother of three in the film (six in real life). Needless to say her plate is full. Her unfaithful husband Ali (Navid Negahban) has fallen for another woman and doesn’t want to wait for a timely divorce. He decides to find the quickest way to get rid of her and cooks up a dishonest scheme to get Soraya convicted of adultery, a crime punishable by death in their twisted culture.
Ali, with the help of others, takes advantage of a vulnerable local mechanic (Ebrahim, played by David Diaan) whose wife has just died. They offer to pay Soraya to cook for Ebrahim and take care of his children while he is working. This provided “legitimate” grounds to pressure other men to be witnesses for the prosecution.
Based on the descriptive title of the film, we know the outcome, which could lead one to believe that this could easily be another snuff film like The Passion of the Christ. A short build up with 90 minutes of grotesque torture. Thanks to the wonderful direction of Cyrus Nowrasteh this is not the case. While the climactic stoning itself is difficult to watch, it is less than a quarter of the film.
The bulk of the film focused on giving us a sense of the people in this community and the corruption that it breeds. While keeping the actual stoning to a minimum, the film gives us an important window into an overlooked part of the world. However uncomfortable it is, we feel as if we are in this town watching the story unfold. Several people in the audience behind me could be heard uttering passionate reactions throughout.
What makes Soraya M enjoyable (and even the hardest scenes bearable) is that our frustrations are released through Zahra’s vocal opposition. She is an outspoken female opponent to the misogynist culture in which she resides. At one point she is told, “muzzles should be for women, not dogs.” With a reaction like that we know she is saying the right things to upset the right people. The rest of the women in town are either indoctrinated into believing they are worthless or intimidated into silence. Without Zahra’s presence the film would be torturous to watch.
Interestingly, by doing a simple search on the Internet I was able to find an awkward amount of reviews unfairly criticizing this film as either anti-Iranian propaganda or a manipulative melodrama. The people who believe this must be the same who subscribe to the idea that “terrorists are people too.”
Even Roger Ebert blasted the director because the film ends on a positive note that he finds corny. An important film like this must have some element that is redeeming. If we all leave feeling awful we will never want to watch the film again (nor recommend it to others).
Instead, Soraya M ends on a positive note and allows us to leave the film scarred but hopeful that people are speaking out about the oppression of women in the Middle East (women’s groups where are you?).
Many may not know that while this film is based on a true story, most of the actors are Iranian natives who fled years ago (including the outspoken Shohreh Aghdashloo). This adds an important element of realism to the film that helps expose a part of the world that is too often referred to or assumed as a peaceful.
This film has not yet had a wide enough release. Unfortunately, it is harder than it should be to get distribution for a film that is emphatically for the protection of women in a part of the world that leaves them helpless. It will be released on DVD March 1st, if you haven’t seen it by then put it on the top of your Netflix Queue!
Film Grade: A