The Stoning Of Soraya M. Review
Often the most common complaint about books being transferred to the big screen is that they are ultimately pointless given that you can generally get a fuller experience reading the source material; however, pointless is one such complaint you cannot accuse The Stoning Of Soraya M. of being. By creating a film of Freidoune Sahebjam’s international bestselling true story of the same name, director Cyrus Nowrasteh has done exactly what Zahra Khanum aimed to do when she spoke to Sahebjam as he passed through her village back in 1986: get her story out to the world and make it un-ignorable. To that extent, Nowrasteh succeeds as The Stoning Of Soraya M. is an unforgettable, harrowing experience but not necessarily one that you’d willingly choose to revisit.
The film tells the shocking story of what happened to Soraya Manutchehri (Mozhan Marnò) after she refuses her husband Ali (Navid Negahban) a divorce so that he can marry a much younger girl. Ali proceeds to conspire against Soraya, trumping up charges of adultery which come with the penalty of stoning, leading to a tragic ending. But Soraya’s aunt Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo) is determined to not let the shocking events remain hidden from the world and seizes her chance to tell the world when she meets journalist Freidoune Sahebjam (Jim Caviezel).
If that synopsis sounds spoilerific, it really isn’t as the main issue with The Stoning Of Soraya M. is that even if you haven’t read the book or any of the news surrounding the book’s release in 1994, the title already gives away the unimaginable events that are to occur in the film’s running time. The reason for this being an issue is that it results in a film so ingrained with a relentless, depressing inevitability that can be hard to stomach at times. It’s not that the film should be enjoyable given its subject matter, but if the film had focussed on the aftermath of the book’s release and had flashbacks to the event instead of having the whole events shape the film, then the audience could try and at least grasp at some good to have come of such a tragic, appalling situation.
What’s undeniable though is that, if you have the stomach for it, then you are rewarded with a truly powerful experience. Main credit for this goes to Shohreh Aghdashloo who puts in an astonishing performance of a woman who knows exactly what is happening but is utterly helpless in preventing it. Come the climax of the film with the stoning sequence, her breakdown and desperately futile final attempts to stop everything are truly intense and painfully authentic. It’s a powerhouse performance that easily should have garnered her another Oscar nomination after 2003’s Supporting Actress nod for House Of Sand And Fog.
She is ably supported by Mozhan Marnò as the doomed Soraya and her subtle fragility and gradual acceptance of her fate make the stoning sequence even more harrowing. Nowrasteh pulls no punches and it’s certainly not for the faint-hearted as it is brutally realistic without over-playing it. Soraya’s final words are delivered with such raw emotion by Marnò to be completely heartbreaking, even more if you stop to think that this actually happened to someone. It’s a sequence that defines the film; it’s not hard to imagine a 50/50 split between people thinking it’s too brutal to watch and people who think it’s an essential and perfectly portrayed account, necessary for the emotional gut-punch of the film.
Unfortunately for all that Nowrasteh does right for the main stoning sequence, he missteps as much along the way. At times, proceedings are dealt with a complete lack of subtlety to add a somewhat pantomime feel to events that were horrifyingly real. Particularly susceptible to this is Navid Negahban who, at times, might as well be twirling his moustache and stroking a white cat such is his portrayal of Soraya’s husband Ali. There’s no denying that all the people involved in the real-life events leading to Soraya’s execution were unforgiveable but it would have made a much more interesting, and possibly less emotionally draining, film if Nowrasteh explored the role of religion more such as with the village mayor Ebrahim (David Diaan) who seems to honestly believe he’s doing the ‘right’ thing based on the evidence presented to him. Towards the end, we get little glimpses of his apparent doubt but it’s nowhere near explored enough, sidelined instead for a tale of purely good vs. downright evil.
Overall though, there’s no denying the importance of the film especially as the closing credits state that stoning is still prevalent in certain areas of the world as an acceptable punishment. It should be hoped that The Stoning Of Soraya M. will bring the topic back to the forefront of public attention but unfortunately, it’s hard to see the film enjoying a run at anything other than art houses because of its sustained bleak tone. It has ultimately ended up as a film to endure rather than admire but if you do endure, The Stoning Of Soraya M. won’t fail to make a lasting impression.