Lionsgate // 2009 // 116 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // March 4th, 2010
"These men are vile dogs."
Iranian director Cyrus Nowrasteh presents a devastating cinema experience, an uncompromising look into a brutal practice from the dark ages -- which is alive and well in the 21st century.
We begin with French-Iranian journalist Fredioune (Jim Caviezel, The Passion of the Christ) as his car breaks down in a remote part of Iran. He catches a ride to a nearby village, where a wild-eyed woman named Zahra (Shoreh Aghdashloo, 24) intercepts him and tells the story of Soraya (Mozhan Marno).
The tale is disturbing, and involves a plot hatched by Soraya's husband and the village elders to frame her for the crime of adultery, a moral trespass punishable by the most barbaric forms of execution under Sharia Law. Zahra scrambles to defuse the bloodlust, but, as we the audience soon realize, being a woman in a hardline Islamic society sucks beyond belief.
What a gut-wrenching experience this is. You know what's coming -- the very title of the film is a massive spoiler -- but I have no doubt you will be extraordinarily unprepared for the brutality and evil that goes down. It's not a fun time at the movies by a long shot, but I recommend The Stoning of Soraya M., full-throated and unabashedly. This thing hit me in the emotional core like a jackhammer.
It is, of course, about the furthest thing away from a "good time at the movies" as you can get. If you thought The Passion of the Christ (which shares a producer with Soraya) was a kick in the clavicle, wait until you see what Cyrus Nowrasteh has for you. From the opening moments, an imposing feel of menace clouds the film, and that dread only increases as Zahra tells her story. That the endgame is known already adds to the trepidation, and counter to what you may think, despite the fact that the climax is revealed so early on, the tension does not suffer. In fact, as the time approaches for the tragedy, the narrative becomes even more stressful.
It's all about the machinations leading up to the sequence that gives so much weight to the finale. These guys in the village, they are bad dudes, starting with Soraya's husband Ali, probably the most despicable villain I've seen in screen in some time. The other participants in the conspiracy don't quite reach the levels of evil that Ali hits, but they are just as complicit and disgusting in their own ways. They are weak and selfish and unquestioning, easily overtaken by physical and metaphysical bullying.
But there's more to this depravity than just a character study of a worthless husband trying to rid himself of his wife; there is, of course, the very fact that stoning is an acceptable practice and this is where I must offer everyone involved with this film the Brass Balls Award. Soraya is not a politically correct misadventure in multicultural moralizing. It does not get bogged down in the rancid swamp of moral relativism. In the making-of documentary, the producers referred to a couple of big stars under consideration for the journalist role who left the project out of fear for their wives' safety, a cryptic anecdote characteristic of the PC minefield Soraya no doubt had to navigate. The message, however is clear: Iran's Sharia Law is a misogynistic, barbaric set of rules that favors men, devalues women and opens wide the door for corruption and the blood-soaked miscarriage of justice. And that also makes Soraya an astonishing feminist tale, anchored by another homerun by Aghdashloo and a heartbreaking performance by the little-known Mozhan Marno. Forget the rah-rah ebullience of typical Hollywood girl power puffery, this is the real stuff; women who are, today even, daring to speak out and give voice to their oppression in the face of heinous medieval violence.
Lastly, a note about said violence; it is intense and disturbing, but the cameras don't linger. The stoning isn't staged as an excuse to be gratuitous or edgy. You will, however, want desperately to look away. But you won't. You can't.
The DVD brings a striking, sandblasted 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer and a 5.1 Dolby Digital surround that is grotesquely enveloping during the stoning sequence. Extras: commentaries from the technical crew and the filmmakers and a sprawling, excellent three-part making-of documentary.
Stunning performances and a powerful true story add up to an unflinching look into modern-day darkness.
Not Guilty. See this movie.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (CC)
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* DVD Verdict interview with director Cyrus Nowrasteh