Thursday, March 11, 2010

DVD Revisit: The Stoning of Soraya M.

A film that won the NAACP’s Image Award for Outstanding Foreign Motion Picture and was the toast of the right-leaning blogosphere would sound like it must have reached the broadest-based audience a film could hope for. Yet, it was essentially shut-out during the rest of the recent award season and was sadly neglected by the critical community. That is because Cyrus Nowrasteh’s The Stoning of Soraya M. fearlessly addresses a controversial topic: the appalling lack of rights granted to women in the Islamist world.

The United Nations estimates as many as 5,000 Islamic women fall victim to so-called “honor killings” every year. Whether reported or not, each instance is an appalling crime, utterly incompatible with any concept of honor. It is the true nature of such honor killings Nowrasteh and his co-screenwriter (and wife) Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh graphically dramatize in the viscerally intense The Stoning of Soraya M. (trailer here), which richly deserves to be revisited now that it has been released on DVD.

Freidoune Sahebjam was a French-Iranian journalist who exposed many of the Islamic Revolutionary regime’s human rights abuses. When passing through a provincial town, a chance encounter with Zahra, a sophisticated older woman of the Shah’s secular era, leads to the biggest story of his career. Just the day before, her niece Soraya was gruesomely executed for the crime of inconveniencing her husband. As Sahebjam interviews Zahra, she bears witness to the terrible injustice that befell Soraya.

Zahra explains the abusive Ali wanted a divorce, so he could marry the fourteen year old girl he lusts after. However, he did not want to financially support Soraya or their two daughters. Of course, none of this violates Islamic notions of honor according to the local mullah. Rather than live up to his obligations, Ali conspired with the mullah to falsely accuse Soraya of adultery. In post-Revolutionary Iran, this was clearly the easiest (and cheapest) course of action for him. After all, as the town’s mayor explicitly explains, if a husband accuses his wife of adultery, she must prove her innocence, but if a wife accuses her husband, she must prove his guilt.

Given the film’s title and the framing device, it is no secret where Stoning will end. It is not called the Narrow Escape of Soraya M., after all. However, Nowrasteh (the Iranian-American writer and producer of The Path to 9/11) creates such a sense of mounting horror, it seems like the actual stoning will come as a relief. And then it happens.

Stoning is Soraya’s story, but it is Shohreh Aghdashloo’s film. The Oscar-nominated Iranian-American actress gives a powerful, fearless performance as Zahra. Not simply the film’s noble conscience, she is a nuanced, fully realized character—an intelligent, assertive, but ultimately vulnerable woman in a society which grants her no legal standing. As Soraya, Mozhan Marnò avoids simply playing the innocent victim, investing her with surprising inner strength and resolution. While only briefly seen during the wrap-around segments, Jim Caviezel is nearly unrecognizable but effective as the intrepid Sahebjam.

Re-watching Stoning on DVD, one is also struck by the work of David Diaan as Ebrahim, the town’s mayor, who reluctantly allows the stoning to proceed. It is a quiet, perfectly pitched performance that conveys the all too human failings of cowardice, guilt, and resentment in a time of moral crisis.

Filmed on location at an undisclosed Middle East locale, Stoning completely immerses the audience in its forbidding world. It was not an easy shoot either, according to the more interesting than usual behind-the-scenes DVD extra featurette. It is an uncompromising film, fueled by outrage, but also a truly moving human drama. Aghdashloo deserved to be in Hollywood this weekend as an Oscar nominee (again), but alas . . . At least Stoning now has a chance to reach on DVD. Highly recommended, Stoning is a rare example of both genuinely bold filmmaking and compelling storytelling.

Photo courtesy of MPower Pictures