If the films of Stanley Kramer proved nothing else, they showed that seriousness of purpose does not guarantee quality of result. “The Stoning of Soraya M.,” adapted from Freidoune Sahebjam’s fact-based book about a woman stoned to death in Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran on false charges of adultery concocted by her philandering husband, obviously deals with an important subject—the mistreatment of women in many areas of the Islamic world. It’s a story that can’t help but have a visceral impact; the very idea of any religion being cruelly manipulated for such selfish, evil ends invites anger and revulsion. But the unhappy fact is that despite the good intentions of the filmmakers, it’s not a very good movie, too often obvious and heavy-handed. But while it might be dismissed as a noble failure and its flaws are real, the subject is sufficiently important and the treatment so passionate that it’s still worth seeing.
The story is presented as an extended flashback, narrated by Soraya’s aunt Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo) the day after the execution to a French-Iranian journalist (Jim Caviezel) whose car breaks down near her remote village and is towed in for repair by burly local mechanic Hashem (Parviz Sayyad). As Zahra tells it, her niece (Mozhan Marno) was brutally put to death as the result of a plot hatched by her husband Ali (Navid Negahban), a prison official who has his eye on a fourteen-year old girl and is willing to use his clout to get her father, a prisoner marked for execution, freed in return for her. He intends to take his two sons to the city to live with him and his new bride, leaving his two daughters behind with Soraya. But to fulfill the plan he needs a divorce, and Soraya refuses because the financial terms he offers are insufficient.
So Ali conspires with the local mullah (Ali Pourtash), whose criminal past he knows about, to get Soraya to take a job as housekeeper for the recently widowed Hashem and his mentally defective son. But the two then force the pathetic Hashem to join them in accusing her of infidelity, and drag the town mayor (David Diann), who’s suspicious about the veracity of the charges but goes along with the charges, into their scheme. A trial is quickly held and the execution follows even more rapidly—an appalling affair, very graphically shown, in which Ali, the mullah, and most of the townsmen enthusiastically participate; even Soraya’s sons are made to cast stones. The film ends with the guilty parties attempting to prevent the newsman from leaving the village with evidence of what had transpired. But we already know, of course, that word of the atrocity reached the larger world, and it has to be said that the reporter’s escape is depicted in a fashion that leaves no cliché unused.
A palpable sense of outrage permeates “The Stoning of Soraya M.,” and that’s perfectly understandable, given the story being told. Who wouldn’t want to reach out toward the screen and give the vicious Ali and the slimy mullah, a true wolf in sheep’s clothing if ever there was one, their just deserts? But their characterization is part of the picture’s basic problem. These are monsters without shading, almost inhuman in their mendacity and viciousness, and they’re played as example of the purest villainy. By contrast, Soraya is depicted merely as a virtual saint, going to her death with dignity and grace (as well as much suffering and blood—the scene recalls “The Passion of the Christ,” in which Caviezel, of course, starred.) The actors can’t give much subtlety to characters so broadly drawn, and Negahban doesn’t even try, his dark, beady eyes practically blazing intensely in every scene (by contrast, Pourtash at least gets to play a conniving fraud with relish).
But the formidable Aghdashloo overdoes things too, swooning soap-operatically when a more restrained approach might have brought greater emotional payoff. Diaan and Sayyad provide greater shading, but most of the supporting players go for broke as well. Caviezel, almost unrecognizable under heavy makeup, is nonetheless a strange choice for his role, and though he gets by, he’s hardly outstanding.
That’s a sign of the weakness in Cyrus Nowrasteh’s direction, which extends to the decision he and co-scripter Betsy Griffin Nowrasteh make to include shots of the white-clad Soraya and her two darling daughters gamboling in the fields, collecting flowers and watching birds in flight and then adding flashbacks to them in the stoning scene.) There’s such a thing a gilding the lily, and this film is guilty of it. And technically the film is merely adequate, though the realism of the locations is impressive.
Were it not for the prolonged, brutal execution sequence, “The Stoning of Soraya M.” might be a cable movie, so straightforward and direct is its argument. It often seems more a legal indictment than a rounded drama. But the point that it’s making about the treatment of women under traditional Islam and the inhumane modes of punishment still prevalent in many countries(including, some would allege, our own) is sufficiently important that, with all its flaws, it deserves to be seen. That’s precisely the sort of thing people used to say about Kramer’s films, but it’s as true now as it was then.