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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Make me an altar of stone

Brutal depiction of a true story sheds light on evil practice

Posted on Thu, Jul 9, 2009 at 4:00 AM

The Stoning of Soraya M.
Studio: Fallen Films
Rated: R
Cast: Shohreh Aghdashloo, Jim Caviezel, Navid Negahban
Director: Cyrus Nowrasteh (II)
WorkNameSort: Stoning of Soraya M., The
Our Rating: 3.00

I don't know how to review this film, so let's start with the facts.

Reports out of Iran are notoriously difficult to gather, but in recent years, Amnesty International has managed to sneak out tidbits about their government's legal death penalty for women who commit adultery: being stoned to death.

Here's what AI was able to find: Article 104 of the Iranian penal code deems that the stones used to kill an adulteress should 'not be large enough to kill the person by one or two strikes.â?� The average length of time it takes to die by these means is 20 minutes. For the woman to prove her innocence is almost impossible, because even if she had evidence a woman's testimony, legally, has half the value of a man's.

And this is according to the court system in Iran. Imagine the inevitability that comes with such an accusation in some mountain village far from Tehran.

That's the world that director Cyrus Nowrasteh drops us into in The Stoning of Soraya M., based on the true account by journalist Freidoune Sahebjam. Sahebjam finds himself out of gas and towed to a local village in 1986. There he records the story, as told by the doomed woman's aunt, of how her niece Soraya was victimized by an abusive husband anxious to be rid of her, the corrupt village mullah who goes along with his false accusations, and a society so steeped in religious hokum that they believe for every rock they throw at her they restore 'honorâ?� to their families ' the honor Soraya took away when she smiled at a male friend. The journalist barely escapes with his life, let alone his voice recorder.

The film tells the story straight. House of Sand and Fog's mesmerizing Shohreh Aghdashloo plays the justice-seeking aunt with strength, and Mozhan Marnó, as Soraya, is naturalistic and beautiful (another of her character's curses). But it's difficult to place exactly where the film wants our attention; it's gorgeously shot and effective, but slim. The true-to-life 20 minutes it takes for Soraya to succumb to her injuries is harrowing, but the practice still goes on today, so there's not enough distance to see it as a historical document. It's clear that Nowrasteh condemns the film's driving antagonistic force ' the Islamic faith ' but it's not as if the women fighting Soraya's verdict ever question the belief system with which they literally cover themselves. Of course, there's also the problem of recommendation: I can't think of a single person I would want to have to endure it.

The controversially right-wing Nowrasteh (he also wrote the TV movie The Path to 9/11) has succeeded in making a relatively nonpartisan film about an issue of humanity that transcends politics. Perhaps the world needs to see these brutalities to open their eyes to the practice (though video of the real thing is available on the Internet for those with stronger stomachs than my own), and perhaps that makes The Stoning of Soraya M. noble and worth the price of admission. The truth is, I just don't know.


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