The title of "The Stoning of Soraya M." gives away the film's ending in a spoiler of sorts. But it also should serve as a warning. The film depicts the ancient form of capital punishment, still used in much of the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, in all its gruesome horror and seen in real time for 15 minutes.
Compounding the wrenching depiction of the stoning is the true story of Soraya, an Iranian woman killed in 1990 because she refused to give her husband a divorce. So he conspired against her, using Islamic Sharia law to get her condemned to death. Soraya's story was written by French-based Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam, and he's played in the opening scene by Jim Caviezel.
Passing through a remote village, he is confronted by a woman who is defying civic and religious authorities in talking to him. But Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo) wants him to tape her story of the horrors that have just transpired there, ending the day before in the execution of her niece, Soraya.
Told through flashbacks, the story unfolds with power and pain. Soraya (Mozhan Marno), a mother of four, is told by the village imam that her husband, Ali (Navid Negahban), wants a divorce so he can marry a 14-year-old girl who has been presented to him by her father, an imprisoned doctor who is using his daughter and cash to bargain his way out of execution. Soraya refuses, saying the offer of the house and a little land will not be enough to support her family, and she doesn't want to become indebted to the manipulative cleric.
Ali, as evil a movie villain as you're going to see, uses his persuasive power to concoct a rumor about Soraya that leads inexorably to her stoning. The details of the lie are hard to believe. But in the male-dominated theocracy of the village, the truth doesn't matter.
Director Cyrus Nowrasteh, an Iranian American who adapted the book for the screen with his wife, Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh, has created a film that feels like agitprop, delivering an appropriately horrifying attack on Sharia law, the male-dominated culture and the corruption of absolute power. But it escapes the realm of propaganda through some brilliant acting, primarily by Aghdashloo, the Emmy-award-winning actress who brings heart, fire and deep sadness to her character and the film.
"The Stoning of Soraya M." looks right because it was filmed in a remote mountain village in an undisclosed Middle Eastern country. It wisely cuts back and forth between the English Zahra uses to tell her story to the journalist and the Farsi of the village.
With its grim march to the ending disclosed by the title and the painfully brutal execution scene, "The Stoning of Soraya M." isn't easy to watch. But it is a powerful picture with a message that, as its postscript indicates, unfortunately remains necessary two decades after the real Soraya was killed.
Reach L. Kent Wolgamott at 473-7244 or email@example.com.