Year Released: 2009
Directed by: Cyrus Nowrasteh
Starring: Shohreh Aghdashloo, Mozhan Marno, Jim Caviezel
(R, 116 min.)
"You may judge a …civilization from the way they treat their women." Thomas Babington Macaulay
The brutality of this Iranian tale is offset by the beauty and dignity of the women who are its greatest victims. As harsh as the town’s steep and rocky paths, as timely as it is timeless, the film is an indictment of the festering poison that is borne of corruption wedded to oppression.
It is framed by Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo), who tells the tragic tale to a journalist (Jim Caviezel) whose car breaks down in their village the day after the stoning of her innocent niece. She speaks to him in English to hide her words from the villagers, but the flashback of events is told in her native Farsi, Zahra’s rasping voice reverberating with authenticity and passion.
Yes, it is difficult to sit through its graphic images, and any suspense involves only how and not what will happen. Certainly not the light summer fare one comes to expect during these dog days, but in a few brush strokes, this eloquent film paints the seething brew that still dominates the streets of Iran. The same corruption, religious fraud, and violence that so cruelly took the life of young Neda in 2009 Iran are at work in the actual events of 1986 on which The Stoning of Soraya M is based.
On its face value, the story is not an uncommon one. Ali (Navid Negahban) wishes to divorce his middle-aged wife, the mother of his four children, to marry a younger woman. A thousand times this story is played out around the world. Yet the deeply rooted misogyny of this culture allows for a few variations on the theme.
First of all, under Islamic law, Ali can marry a second wife, but as the village jailer, he cannot afford it. He therefore has a cohort try to talk Soraya (Mozhan Marno) into a no fault divorce, offering what he and his friendly “mullah” think are fair conditions. She may keep the house and the adjoining land to farm, as well as the two young daughters. His two sons, whom he has already turned against their mother, he will take with him to their new quarters in town.
Soraya has offended not only by losing her youth, but she has not freely accepted her “wifely duties,” which her husband now gains through physical brutality as well as freely supplementing them with visits to local prostitutes. Another distinctly Middle Eastern variation is the age of the bride to be – a blushing fourteen year old with a shy, compliant smile behind her braces. It seems her wealthy doctor father is currently in jail under a death sentence and has offered his daughter as well as plenty of cash to induce Ali’s assistance in his release.
Another wrinkle is that the local Mullah is a false one, really a sexual offender released from prison under an amnesty when the Ayatollah Khomeini took power from the Shah in 1979. Only the jailer, Ali, knows his secret and uses it to force the Mullah into his plot to rid himself of Soraya. The mullah’s methods to win over the reluctant wife backfire. As much as she loathes her husband, Soraya knows that she cannot support herself and her two daughters on the stony acres Ali will bequeath to her. The mullah offers to care for her, to support her as his sigheh, a kind of temporary wife, which the proud Soraya recognizes as a codified form of prostitution.
Ali is clearly painted as a villain, so we are not surprised that his next option to rid himself of Soraya is evil. What does shock is the inherent system that makes this nefarious plot so swift and easy. He has only to plant rumors that Soraya is having an adulterous affair and manipulate two witnesses to the fact. The Sharia Law as practiced in this village does not presume innocence, and poor Soraya has no means to prove herself falsely maligned. Her fate is decided behind closed doors by an all male cadre who give her only an hour to say goodbye to her daughters after finding her guilty.
The subsequent stoning is extremely difficult to watch. Many have harped on its graphic nature and length. The stoic Soraya is buried in the earth up to her waist as the stones rain down upon her. She wears a white dress reminiscent of a wedding, but instead of a first dance with her father, he is the one to “cast the first stone.” He easily disavows her, but does not have it in him to make the stones reach their target.
According to Iranian born Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays Soraya’s widowed aunt Zahra, the teller of the story, an actual stoning can take up to one and one-half hours. The filming of it for the screen took six days and perhaps covers ten to twelve minutes on screen. When the first real hit sends a stream of blood down Soraya’s face, we are reminded of Iran’s Neda and the image that captures Iran’s present violent oppression as well.
We should not flinch from watching nor fumble into incoherent reasons for demeaning the power of this film as our local film critic so pathetically does.
Jim Caviezel plays journalist Freidoune Sahebjam, who chronicled this tale in his 1994 successful book of the same name. The actor, first known for his moving portrayal in The Passion of the Christ, and now a star of the highly popular television series, "Person of Interest," seems very at home here in the dusty roads, the stone walls and stucco interiors. Rural Iran of 1986 does not appear too different from Jerusalem some two thousand years ago. Nor does its “justice.”
Experience its pain, and then turn away from dusty death for a moment to experience our cool, refreshing Iranian salad. That is, if you still have any appetite.
- 4 medium tomatoes
- 2 small cucumbers
- 1 medium onion
- 3-4 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 2-3 tablespoons virgin olive oil
- 200 grams fresh mint (or 1 teaspoon dry mint)
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/6 teaspoon black pepper
Wash and peel cucumbers. Wash tomatoes and mint. Peel onion. Chop cucumbers, tomatoes, and onion very finely, and mix. Chop mint very finely and add. Add fresh lime juice, olive oil, salt, and black pepper.
Mix well and serve cool.
Recipe Source: Iran Chamber.com