It’s a tough sell, a film about the 1986 stoning of a woman. And yes, I mean the barbaric execution sort of stoning, not anything with a bong. It came and went in theatres like a flash; when I received my screener DVD, I eyed it with trepidation. It is a difficult topic and an emotionally wrenching concept, and that’s even before you slide the disc in and read “based on a true story.” It’s the sort of movie you might have chosen to avoid, but I think it is very important to squarely face this tale as best you can. See it. I confess that I (even inured little me) spent some time peeking through the cracks of my fingers, and I did need help divorcing my rational brain from my empathy. Soraya’s story got out of Ayatollah-controlled Iran at great risk and at a terrible price — she deserves the comparatively mild commitment of us to watch the dramatic retelling of her story. And the filmmakers and actors deserve it as well.
Soraya (Mozhan Marno) falls victim to her village’s calculating, dismissive men. Her only friend and ally is her aunt, Zahra (Shoreh Aghdashloo), a fearless woman who wields some of the only feminine authority in that place. Aghdashloo has always impressed in small roles and large, but here is a role of cunning, bravery, misery, steely resolve, and crumpled hope. Marno’s role is in some ways easier — she has only to suffer, resign, mourn. I don’t mean at all to belittle her performance: it was harrowing. Her end can only elicit horror and despair, no matter how well she succeeds in making us love her. Aghdashloo has a showy role, but one where she must dole out her showiness in careful measure.
Everyone gives a profoundly affecting performance. I can’t imagine being asked to play any of these men; even the gentlest male soul has to bury his actorly humanity in service of the character by the end of the film. I wonder too how close these actors (male and female) are culturally to the world they are depicting, and how it must also have affected them. This is a very good film, but it is hard for me to chirp “check it out” because it will stick with you, twisting in your stomach and making your life’s petty annoyances feel less than trivial.
Based on the book by Freidoune Sahebjam (portrayed by Jim Caviezel), The Stoning plays out much as it must have been told to him. It unspools like a fable, the terrible course of Soraya’s life before the story begins, and the plot to end it. The reign of the Ayatollah Khomeni continued for three years after this story takes place, and, like the Taliban in Afghanistan, set the cultural attitudes back in that country by 2000 years almost overnight. For such ugliness of humanity to rise so easily, for such unfairness and cruelty to bloom so virulently requires such a deficit of empathy, rationality, compassion it hurts to think about it. I wonder if this film might inadvertently re-injure the peaceful followers of Islam who are still smarting from the backlashes of 9/11-motivated hate crimes. My heart found it inconceivable to see any good in these men, even Hashem (Parviz Sayyad), a man unique among his peers for shedding tears over the death of his wife. Still, to allow such atrocities to continue is impossible to endure. My hope is that Soraya will serve as a symbol for so many others who in modern times have met the same fate, and help stop the practice of stoning. This film is eye-opening and heart-draining and it is excellently produced.
MPAA Rating R – disturbing sequence of cruel and brutal violence, and brief strong language.
Release date 6/26/09
Time in minutes 116
Director Cyrus Nowrasteh
Studio Roadside Attractions