The Stoning of Soraya M. begins with a quote: “Don’t act like a hypocrite, who thinks he can conceal his wiles while loudly quoting the Koran;” and then proceeds to explore a situation in which the Koran becomes little more than a tool to oppress and punish. It is a film with a strong point of view that nevertheless fails to effectively dramatize its message. Guided by a heavy hand, the film’s failings far outweigh its achievements.
The story begins with the arrival of French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam (Jim Caviezel) in a small village after his car breaks down. He is immediately approached by Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo), who is dismissed by the mayor (David Diaan) and the Mullah (Ali Pourtash) as a “crazy woman” out to make trouble. Sahebjam, however, agrees to hear her out and sits down with her to record her story, which involves the horrific events of the day before when her niece, Soraya (Mozhan Marno), was stoned to death in the village square.
Soraya’s position in the days and weeks leading up to her death conveys the vulnerability of women in a culture that is essentially, blatantly, and even proudly, misogynist. Her husband (Navid Negahban) wants to dissolve their marriage so that he can marry a young girl and move away from the village with their two sons. Their two daughters he proposes to leave behind with Soraya, and he has no intention of giving them any support to keep them from starving. When Soraya won’t agree to his terms, he enlists the help of the Mullah, blackmailing him with knowledge of his criminal past. The Mullah proposes to make Soraya his mistress but she refuses him, which only serves to align him further with her husband.
When Soraya begins working as a housekeeper for a recently widowed neighbour, her husband lights on plan, making sure that rumours are spread throughout the village and then accusing Soraya of infidelity. The men are gathered together to determine her fate and inevitably find her guilty – a foregone conclusion given how worked up they all are before being formally gathered together. She’s taken into the street, buried up to her waist, and killed in one of the most horrific death scenes ever filmed. The stoning sequence lasts for approximately 20 minutes and makes for an almost unbearable viewing experience. It is also where the film is at its strongest because it presents the event in an unflinching way that truly brings the horror of it home to the viewer. There are no convenient cutaways, no creative camera work that leaves it to the imagination. It is simply brutal and the brutality speaks for itself.
Unfortunately, this is just about the only part of the film where director Cyrus Nowrasteh, who co-wrote the screenplay with Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh, lets the events speak for themselves. The Stoning of Soraya M. is a film with good intentions but like many such films it goes overboard in its attempts to convey its message, hitting the audience over the head with it and taking no chances with subtlety. The people in Soraya’s village are practically cartoon characters, drawn far more broadly than is actually necessary. It undercuts the effectiveness of the story because it pushes the narrative into a corner where all it can hope to do is preach to the choir. To add insult to injury, Nowrasteh then tacks on an ending out of the worst kind of feel good, Hollywood schlock which sees Sahebjam trying to escape the village with his taped interview of Zahra intact and his newly repaired car stalling before starting again and allowing him to get away as the score swells and Zahra stands triumphant. It is amateurish at best, insulting at worst.
That being said, there are nevertheless things that make The Stoning of Soraya M. a film worth seeing. One is Aghdashloo’s performance, which is strong and manages to hold the film together even when it is slipping off the rails. Zahra is a woman old enough to remember what life was like for women in Iran before things became so rigid and uncompromising. She speaks her mind even though her words fall on deaf ears and she is unfailing in her attempts to help her niece, even when the situation is at its most hopeless. She is the emotional core of the film and without her it would not work at all.
Another element to the film’s credit involves one of its few touches of subtlety. Before the stoning, the mayor, who has been plagued with doubts as to whether the sentence is right and reasonable, prays and asks for a sign to stay his hand. Arguably he receives two signs but ignores them both in order to remain submissive to the rule of the mob, which insists that it is doing God’s work. This element brings the film back to its original point, that invoking religion as a mask for self-interest is the worst and most dangerous form of hypocrisy. It is the quietest, but also the most stinging indictment the film is able to make and demonstrates how much better and more effective it could have been if only it had had more faith in the audience’s ability to put the pieces together without having to have everything spelled out and underlined. The Stoning of Soraya M. is unquestionably a film with its heart in the right place but it is a deeply, deeply flawed piece of work.