The Stoning of Soraya M.



Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO -- Two decades after it happened, the horrible story of the stoning of a young married woman in a small Iranian village, on the basis of her husband's patently trumped-up charges of adultery, has finally been told, and told powerfully (and with excellent production values), on the big screen.

Originally described in 1990 in a book by a French-Iranian journalist named Freidoune Sahejam, this stunning adaptation is the work of first-time director Cyrus Nowrasteh, an American-born graduate of the USC film school, who knows what film technique is all about.

Adventurous indie distributors should definitely give this film a look, especially those with an interest in human-rights or women's issues. It would also be a natural for film festivals around the world and should do extremely well in the ancillary market, especially with sales to colleges.

Iran officially denies that stoning takes place there, but independent evidence indicates otherwise. In any case, one problem the film might encounter is that in the present environment it could certainly be construed as an anti-Islamic work, since virtually everyone in the film (certainly all the males) are presented as villains.

The story is related as a flashback told to the French journalist, the day after the event took place, by Zahra, Soraya's close friend. The latter is played by the excellent and well-known Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, who was nominated for an Oscar in 2004 for her work in "The House of Sand and Fog."

Soraya's husband Ali wants to divorce her to marry a tempting pre-teen girl who's been offered to him, but Soraya refuses to agree until she can earn enough money to support her and her two sons. Ali gets impatient, however, and blackmails the local ayatollah (a former hatchet-man for the Shah) into helping him. Soraya's uneducated employer Hashem is easily intimidated into testifying that she had "slept in his bed," and the wishy-washy mayor goes along with the obviously phony charges.

The film itself is presented with the stateliness and inevitability of Greek tragedy, and the nobility with which Soraya accepts her fate is reminiscent of the grandest of Italian operas. It's obviously meant as a fable, a cautionary tale, and can't be judged by the usual criteria of realism, especially the pure villains like her husband Ali.

Given the title of the film, we all know exactly what is going to happen, and the film's strategy is to slowly draw out the horrifying details: the gathering of the stones; her burial standing up, as far up her waist; the forcing of her two sons to abjure her and throw stones themselves; and of course the chilling spectacle of the blood lust of the mob.

The editing is a bit overdone at times (especially when the cuts are amateurish and unnecessary), as is the occasionally melodramatic music track, though the ambient sounds on the soundtrack are brilliantly done. In any case, it's a powerful, shocking piece, and the denunciation of a system in which an accused woman has to prove her own innocence (while in the case of a man, his guilt has to be proven by others), is strong and clear and unforgettable.

Production Companies: Mpower Pictures
Cast: Shohreh Aghdashloo, Mozhan Marno, Jim Caviezel, Navid Nagahban, Ali Pourtash
Director: Cyrus Nowrasteh
Screenwriter: Cyrus Nowrasteh, Betsy Giffen Nowarsteh, based on the book by Freidoune Sahebjam
Producers: Steve McEveety, John Shepherd
Director of photography: Joel Ransom
Production designer: Judy Rhee
Editor: Geoffrey Rowland
Sales: Mpower Pictures
No rating, 116 minutes.