With more than five-dozen screeners sitting patiently in my inbox at any one time and the continuous demand to have live performance reviews/commentaries published in a timely manner, occasionally a worthy production lingers unwatched far beyond its arrival date.
In the case of The Stoning of Soraya M. (based on a true story by Iranian journalist/author Fereydoun Sahebjam) the long delay, in part, had to do with the subject matter. Having written extensively about so many forms of violence, death and destruction in the name of religion and systemic bullying far beyond the schoolyard (cross-references below), my appetite was not large to bear witness to another horrific death.
The film recounts the chance meeting of Sahebjam (Jim Caviezel looking very “Indiana Jones” and handling the language requirements—most of the film is subtitled—with ease) and the widow Zahra (a superbly nuanced performance by Shohreh Aghdashloo). The latter is the matriarchal conscience of the village of Kupayeh which is jointly governed by mayor (David Diaan requiring a touch more inner-angst to make his decisions totally credible) and mullah (oozing copious amounts of slime and piety as required, Ali Pourtash is ideally cast) who use selected portions from the Koran, Sharia law and Islamic mores to ensure that women retain their second-class citizen, third-class human being status.
Zahra then unfolds the tale of her niece, Soraya (Mozhan Marnò endures each insult, jibe and—finally after God’s will has been decided by the council of men—death with commendable stoicism and quiet style), whose lecherous husband (kudos as well for Navid Neghaban in the miserable role) craves a divorce (keeping just the two boys: Soraya can have the girls) in order to marry a 14-year-old temptress under her chador.
Her refusal to release the father of her children and, now, regular physical abuser (left on her own, Soraya would be penniless: how could she feed her two girls?) leads to the incredible demand that Soraya take on a job as housekeeper for the recently widowed Hashem (Parviz Sayyad is readily pliable), who brings two quite different takes to the old adage, “Who can cast the first stone?” There is also a teenage, mentally challenged boy (Abdulah Shaheen) in the Hashem clan (perhaps having a child after 30 years of marriage was not a further gift from God) is now largely cared for by Soraya.
Then before you can say “framed,” Ali uses blackmail on the mullah, a chronic gossiper, unbridled threats (Hashem) and bullying (the mayor) to have a trumped up charge of adultery put at the feet of his “inconvenient” wife. Zahra comes to her defence, but in a “man’s world,” her protestations amount to nothing: Soraya is convicted and must suffer death by stoning (for God’s will must be done).
The actual event is extremely difficult to watch. Unlike The Passion of the Christ (cross-reference below) with its senseless overload of blood and gore, the killing has enough ancillary components woven into its dreadful fabric to warrant the time and brutality. In a nod towards Shakespeare, screenwriters Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh and Cyrus Nowrasteh bring a travelling circus troupe to the village square just as the rock-laden citizenry (including the condemned woman’s boys—what could be a better rite of passage for the pubescent lads?—and her father—chauvinism at its absolute worst—is about to unleash its collective venom. There is no real comic relief but the metaphor speaks volumes.
We hear from the holy mullah that “justice demands” this punishment and that “[the male population’s] honour returns with each stone.” Sadly, after advising her falsely accused relative to pray harder than ever, Zahra comforts Soraya by reminding her that “God and paradise are waiting for you.” Oh really, the same God that so conveniently allowed one perverted egoist to have his uncooperative (to him) wife put to death? Too little, too late is the anguished cry, “How can you [men] do this to anybody?”
Unfortunately, that is the whole point. Take even a cursory look around the planet: unjust, senseless death is not going away anytime soon, be it caused by drone, IED, chemicals or unrequited love.
Not even John Debney’s beautifully crafted score (the solo cello is especially fine) can wash away the terrible taste of witnessing a dramatized horror, knowing all along that similar atrocities are playing the stages of the world daily. JWR