"The Stoning of Soraya M." lives up to its title quite literally -- and rightly so, for it is important to understand just how cruel and drawn-out this ancient form of execution is and how prevalent it remains, not just in Iran, the film's setting, but in countries throughout the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa that follow Islamic Sharia law.
The timing of the film's release is apt, for it serves as a metaphor for the current protests in Iran against the long-standing oppressiveness of the Islamic Republic.
Based on a true story recounted in the late Freidoune Sahebjam's book, "The Stoning of Soraya M." was filmed in a remote mountain village in an undisclosed Middle Eastern country. Jim Caviezel is cast as Sahebjam, an eminent Iranian journalist based in France who is passing through the village when he is accosted by a distraught woman, Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo), who prevails upon him to tape the terrible story she has to tell.
Only the day before, her niece Soraya (Mozhan Marno) was executed in the town square by stoning. Her husband, Ali (Navid Negahban), who has the village leaders in his thrall, had concocted a flimsy and completely false charge of adultery against Soraya, the mother of their four children, so that he can be free to marry a 14-year-old girl; Soraya had refused to divorce Ali because she had no other means of support.
What is so compelling about this film, directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh, an American of Iranian descent who adapted Sahebjam's 1994 book with his wife, Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh, is the way religion can be exploited in the most obscene and hypocritical manner by those in power to oppress others -- and how total power over others can corrupt totally. Islam happens to be the religion here, but what happens in the course of this important and uncompromising film recalls evils perpetrated in the name of Christianity and other organized religions as well.
"The Stoning of Soraya M." goes well beyond its angry didacticism and its specific indictment of men's oppression of women to achieve the impact of a Greek tragedy through its masterful grasp of suspense and group psychology, and some superb acting, especially on the parts of Marno in the title role of a courageous martyr and the commanding Aghdashloo, Oscar nominated for her performance in "The House of Sand and Fog."
'The Stoning of Soraya M.'
MPAA rating: R for a disturbing sequence of cruel and brutal violence and brief strong language
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Language: In Farsi and English with English subtitles
Playing: In selected theaters