Stoning Of Soraya M.: A Message Lost In Gratuitous Violence

Illustration for article titled Stoning Of Soraya M.: A Message Lost In Gratuitous Violence

The Stoning of Soraya M. is based on the true story of the murder of an Iranian mother falsely accused of infidelity, but critics say it's too blunt and gratuitously violent to properly address women's rights issues in Iran.


The Stoning of Soraya M. was adapted from the late journalist Friedoune Sahebjam's 1994 best-seller of the same name about an Iranian woman who was stoned to death by her friends and family in 1986. In the film, Soraya (Mozhan Marno) is charged with adultery by her husband Ali (Navid Negahban), who beats her regularly. Ali wants to marry a 14-year-old girl but can't afford to support his wife, their children and another bride. He asks Soraya for a divorce and when she refuses, he falsely claims that she is having an affair with the widowed man whose house she cleans. Ali bullies the village mullah (Ali Pourtash) into taking his side and Soraya is sentenced to death. She is stoned by villagers including Ali, their sons, and her father. Several days later Soraya's aunt Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo of House of Sand and Fog) flags down journalist Freidoune Sahebjam (James Caviezel of The Passion of the Christ), whose car breaks down near the village and tells him about Soraya's murder.

Surprisingly, reviewers strongly disliked the film for the same reasons many objected to The Passion of the Christ. They said that director Cyrus Nowrasteh, who wrote the screenplay with his wife, Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh, made the stoning scene too long and too gratuitous and failed to present a nuanced look at the issues of women's rights and religious extremism. Previously, critics attacked the director when his 2006 miniseries The Path To 9/11 placed some of the blame for the attacks on former President Bill Clinton.

Nowrasteh, an American whose parents fled Iran, defended the 20-minute stoning scene in an interview with The New York Post, saying, "I didn't want anyone to mistake what they were seeing for standard popcorn violence." Soraya M. has already been banned in Iran by officials who saw the trailer online. Nowrasteh says he hopes the film will be seen in Iran and the clips have been circulating at a high rate in the country. He explained, "Eventually people will have bootleg DVDs... Inside of Iran they know about the movie, and I believe there will be high awareness of it," according to Reuters.

Below, we check out what the critics are saying about The Stoning of Soraya M.:


Director Cyrus Nowrasteh, who co-scripted with spouse Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh, bases the film's structure on the title event: Soraya will be stoned till dead, and you will watch. For viewers, as for women living under Islam's cruelest regimes, there is no escape. This is a problematic strategy, and not just because it reduces the movie's potential audience to the courageous (and, perhaps, the jaded). However honorable the filmmaker's intentions, the protracted execution sequence feels exploitative. The director stylizes the action with such Hollywood tricks as quick cuts, slow motion and orbiting camera movements. He even ends the movie with a swashbuckling little victory over the town's pious villains, although it comes too late to help Soraya.

USA Today

This is a difficult movie to watch and probably won't help counter the prejudices of those who regard Islam as a religion that espouses violence. Though it is surely not meant to incite ignorance or fan the flames of fearmongers, it is conceivable that this unsettling story could have that effect. By drawing out the horrific stoning ritual, it can't help but fuel the average person's ire toward ritualized practices of human cruelty. It is anything but subtle. The sounds of children banging stones in rhythmic preparation for massacre is haunting.


The New York Times

The Stoning of Soraya M., a true story of religiously sanctioned misogyny and mob violence in an Iranian village, thoroughly blurs the line between high-minded outrage and lurid torture-porn.Not since The Passion of the Christ has a film depicted a public execution in such graphic detail. In the approximately 20 minutes during which the killing unfolds, the camera repeatedly returns to study the battered face and body of the title character (Mozhan Marno) as she is stoned to death. Buried up to her waist in a hole dug for the occasion, she is pelted with rocks and profanity by the male villagers, including her father, husband and two sons, until she dies.


The A.V. Club

Say what you will about The Stoning Of Soraya M.: Here's a movie that definitely delivers on its title. In fact, the title speaks perfectly to the film's blunt, ham-handed, morally unambiguous treatment of injustice in the wake of the '79 Islamic Revolution in Iran. It takes zero political courage to speak out against the obvious barbarism of public stonings or the oppressive patriarchy of sharia law, but the film whips out the megaphone anyway, eager to extrapolate the martyrdom of an innocent woman into a broader condemnation of the Muslim world. As directed by first-timer Cyrus Nowrasteh, who wrote the leaden script with his wife, Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh, The Stoning Of Soraya M. has a neocon's sense of good and evil, which could politely be called "moral clarity," but is more accurately described as narrow, tone-deaf, and thoroughly banal.


The Houston Chronicle

Is it too early to call for an Oscar nomination for Shohreh Aghdashloo? As Zahra, Soraya's angry, unstoppable and protective aunt, Aghdashloo (who played a terrorist on 24) fuses in one small body the moral indignation of all womanhood, all protestors, all the world. The movie is less about the falsely accused title character - a humble paragon of virtue played by the able, sympathetic Mozhan Marnò - than then men who conspire against her and the woman who comes to her defense. As Soraya's plight grows more futile, Zahra's outrage turns fearless and loud, offering an adamant ethical counterpoint to the slow beat of mob bloodlust gathering in the village around them.


The Wall Street Journal

The timing of the production's release is, of course, eerie and ironic as well as coincidental: Iranian women, having struggled against misogynist oppression for so long, are suddenly in the forefront of a gathering challenge to an oppressive government. But The Stoning of Soraya M., which was directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh from an adaptation of the Sahebjam book by the director and Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh, is not only an outraged cry directed at religious law that still countenances such punishment; indeed, the screenplay softens its own impact in that respect by making the village mullah an ex-convict and a fraud. The film, shot elegantly in color but with the dramatic feel of black and white, functions as a parable of power abused by the multitude. It takes a village to turn craven stupidity into fascist bestiality.


The Los Angeles Times

What is so compelling about this film... 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 Marnò 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 Boston Globe

If nothing else, The Stoning of Soraya M. is truth in titling. Soraya M. gets stoned - and not in a Harold and Kumar way. The projectiles are rocks as opposed to hydroponic grass. And, appropriately enough, this is less a movie than a blunt instrument, a bit of political parable, a bit more outrage, and nary a scrap of real drama or finesse. Soraya M. wants to dismay its Western art house audiences with an all-too-real problem faced by women in some Islamic societies: a denial of rights. It's a BBC report dragged to feature length, complete with the flagrantly styled climactic title event...

Director Nowrasteh seems to think the only way to save lives is to sensationalize death. You could trek to the theater and have this movie whack you upside the head. You could also just mail a check for $10 to the human rights group of your choice.


The Stoning Of Soraya M. opens today. The trailer is below:

The Stoning Of Soraya M. Details 1986 Iranian Execution Similar To Neda's [The New York Post]
Film Set In Iran Examines Death By Stoning [Reuters]



The NPR review makes a really good point about how the extreme violence makes viewers less likely to see the movie and that that is problematic because arguably this is a movie that should appeal to a broader audience to better spread the message of the film.