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Let He Who is With Sin Cast the First Stone

MOVIE REVIEW
The Stoning of Soraya M. (2009)

IMG-1338
MPower Pictures

A simple purpose underlies “The Stoning of Soraya M.,” fulfilled without distractions by director Cyrus Nowrasteh. Based on the 1994 novel by Freidoune Sahebjam, it’s a streamlined, real-time depiction of the true event promised by the title: the brutal communal stoning of a woman that took place in newly post-revolutionary Iran. A fervent outcry against the abuses subjected on women not only in Iran – with which we’ve all become familiar during the past two weeks – but throughout much of the world, it successfully provokes feelings of uncontrollable outrage.

Mr. Nowrasteh, a veteran of docudramas, renders the film with the literal-minded didacticism characteristic of the form. There’s never any doubt of his point of view, with every scene structured to resolutely emphasize the dangers of the mob mentality that takes hold in the village. Characterizations divide between saintly and sinful, with subtlety obscured beneath the conscious moralizing. Yet the film maintains an enveloping power even as its flaws come into full view thanks to the strength of the lead performances and the haunting specter of the narrative’s steadfast advance towards the gruesome titular event.

Shohreh Aghdashloo plays Zahra, who shares with journalist Freidoune (Jim Caviezel) the story of the hasty conviction for adultery and stoning of her niece Soraya (Mozhan Marnò) at the behest of Soraya's husband Ali (Navid Negahban). The screenplay, by the director and his wife, Betty Giffen Nowrasteh, reveals the events of the day without flourishes. It amplifies the tragedy with its depiction of Soraya’s kindhearted nature, manifested in her love for her children and the strength with which she faces her fate.

The film frequently resembles a passion play. Save for a few overwrought digressions into hokey martyr imagery – as, say, Soraya and her children picnic in an idyllic, windswept field – the camerawork has the staginess of a filmed theater piece. The few times the camera moves, it’s largely to enhance the sense of foreboding, as tracks alongside Soraya give way to shots of the leering, plotting men. By the stoning sequence, the approach changes considerably. It’s rife with visual tricks meant to convey Soraya’s disorientation, sound that emphasizes the roar of the crowd and thud of the stones, and a relentless, unfiltered focus on the protagonist’s beaten, bloodied body. It’s all calibrated to provoke a specific reaction, without letting the audience come to it on its own.

In other words, “The Stoning of Soraya M.” might well be rechristened (no pun intended) “The Passion of Soraya M." To do so, however, would be to ignore what sets the film apart: the ferocity Ms. Aghdashloo brings to her portrait of Zahra, simultaneously revealing the Iranian actress’s fervent belief in the material and serving as a powerful corrective to decades of cinematic portraits of weak-willed, repressed Middle Eastern women. It would be to ignore the human dimension of Ms. Marnò’s work, particularly her knack for communicating Soraya’s pain and resolve with her face and body, and without the aid of an abundance of dialogue. Finally, it would ignore the urgency of the film’s outcry for equal rights and an end to this most outrageous of injustices, one reflected by thousands of heroic Zahras and Sorayas during these past weeks.

 

THE STONING OF SORAYA M.

Opens on June 26 in Manhattan.

Directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh; written by Mr. Nowrasteh and Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh, based on the book by Freidoune Sahebjam; director of photography, Joel Ransom; edited by Geoffrey Rowland and David Handman; music by John Debney; production designer, Judy Rhee; produced by Stephen McEveety and John Shepherd; released by Roadside Attractions and Mpower Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 56 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Shohreh Aghdashloo (Zahra), Mozhan Marno (Soraya), Navid Negahban (Ali), David Diaan (Ebrahim), Parviz Sayyad (Hashem) and Jim Caviezel (Freidoune Sahebjam).

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