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  The Stoning of Soraya M.

Starring: Mozhan Marnò, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Jim Caviezel, Navid Negahban

Directed by: Cyrus Nowrasteh

Produced by: Steve McEveety, John Shepherd

Written by: Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh, Cyrus Nowrasteh

Distributor: Roadside Attractions

As seen at the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival:

     Cyrus Nowrasteh’s The Stoning of Soraya M. is the most didactic exercise in white liberal guilt I’ve ever seen, grossly oversimplifying the larger issue of nonexistent women’s rights in Iran through a style that panders directly to weepy, middle-aged Oprah viewers. It’s not that I don’t think this is an issue that movies should approach—in light of recent events, the topic is urgently in need of artistic representation—but rather that I find Nowrasteh’s gruesomely violent vision cartoonish. The only thing that differentiates the overbearing gore in the finale of The Stoning of Soraya M. and that of a Quentin Tarantino splatter-fest is that the former is based on true events. But the ultimate result is the same: viewers may leave with a visceral reaction, but it stems from pity for the characters. And pity is the last thing that the Iranians—23 years after the events of The Stoning of Soraya M., but many of them still living in the stone-age—need. Given the film was made primarily for Western audiences, it should have been done in the more understated, but truly angry style needed to provoke political action. Instead, Nowrasteh has fashioned a work that will cause little more than tissue-touting faux-outrage, not unlike the recent uncommitted sentiments displayed by President Obama on Iran’s rigged election. 

     One’s impression of The Stoning of Soraya M. hinges almost entirely upon the ending which, as one would expect based on the title, involves the extended, barbaric execution of the main character. The lead-up is not nearly as objectionable, though it is mediocre at best, reflecting an inertly Hollywood version of the events. The first two acts have an uncanny ability to seem sanitized and emotionally muted, much in the way that mainstream rom-coms aren’t sexy or funny despite their intentions to be. The events of The Stoning of Soraya M. are horrific on paper, but barely register on celluloid because of the cliché nature of Nowrasteh’s overall aesthetic and sense of self-importance. One would think that the story of our heroine (Mozhan Marnò), who faces execution because her husband accuses her of adultery so he can divorce her without having to pay any support, would be reviling. But instead it becomes no less than predictable because Nowrasteh and company display such an apparent, over-the-top need to make it seem reviling. Each element fits in with this self-defeatingly Hollywood style: Joel Ransom’s cinematography is ruggedly beautiful rather than just rugged, John Debney’s musical score arrives just in time to hammer home the content – the list goes on.

     And then there’s the finale, which is offensive to any viewer of intelligence because it so clearly exploits the realism of excessive violence as if to make unenlightened Americans squeal for 30 minutes before they go on with their days. This is not the redeeming, spiritual exercise in grit that The Passion of the Christ (which many in this cast and crew also worked on) was. Instead, it just seems relentless for the sake of being relentless, as if only to prove that the main character got really freakin’ murdered rather than just murdered. For instance, while the obligatory shots in which her sons are encouraged to stone her get the point across about the barbarism towards women in their society, they, like the rest of the movie, come off as muted because they’re conveyed in such an over-the-top manner. Even the emotional-when-isolated performances by Mozhan Marnò and Shohreh Aghdashloo barely register, only affecting the viewer in the movie’s few quiet scenes just before Soraya is killed. Otherwise, The Stoning of Soraya M. is a miscalculation of offensive proportions, overdramatized and lacking all of the stripped-down qualities that would give it potency. For a more enriching, more cinematically honest look at the horrors that women Iranian society face, check out Jafar Panahi’s Offside instead.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 7.2.2009

Screened on: 6.20.2009 at the Mann Festival in Westwood, CA.


The Stoning of Soraya M. is rated R and runs 116 minutes.

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