Friday, July 17, 2009
"The Stoning of Soraya M." (opening July 17 at Landmark's La Jolla Village Theaters) is not great filmmaking but it's a great example of how films can help draw attention to issues in a forceful and compelling way. Sometimes film serves not as art or entertainment but as a means of delivering a message. That may turn some viewers off or rile those who want the medium to be viewed as art but the reality is that film can be used in many different ways for multiple purposes, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.
The title of the film leaves little doubt as to where this story will end even though you find yourself hoping against hope that it will end differently. The film opens in 1986 Iran. A French reporter Freidoune Sahebjam (Jim Caviezel not too convincing as a Frenchman) finds himself stranded in a small Iranian village after his car breaks down. As he waits for the repairs to be done a woman named Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo who displays the proper moral outrage throughout the film) pulls him aside and tells him that he needs to tell the world about what happened in the village just the day before. She asks him to take out his cassette recorder and "take her voice" so her story can be told. She begins by telling him about her niece Soraya (Mozhan Marnò) who had been in a bad marriage to Ali (Navid Negahban) for some two decades. Ali asked for a divorce because he wanted to marry a teenage bride and move to the city. But the deal he offered Soraya would essentially leave her and her two daughters destitute. So she refused. This prompted Ali to come up with another solution, accuse and frame her for adultery and have her stoned. This is the story that Zahra wants the world to hear.
In 1994, Sahebjam did write a book about this and that has provided the basis for this film by Cyrus Nowrasteh. The film is fueled by a desire to open people's eyes to the plight of women in Iran. Women are second-class citizens and often find themselves powerless in a male dominated culture. And although stoning is not a common practice, it does occur in the region and it is a horrific form of punishment that organizations such as Amnesty International are working to stop. Nowrasteh's film serves as a vivid and potent document to use in such a campaign. It depicts the stoning in chilling detail – from the village children collecting the rocks to the agonizing length of time it takes for the victim to die. Soraya has her arms bound and then is buried waist deep in the ground. The stones used are large enough to inflict injury but none is big enough to deliver a fatal blow. Even her sons are asked to throw stones at their mother. The scene is far more disturbing and terrifying than anything cooked up in a horror film.
"The Stoning of Soraya M." is a difficult film to review because it's message is so strong and its subject matter is something that deserves attention. Yet the filmmaking is not nearly as strong as its subject matter. "The Stoning of Soraya M." is clear and effective in delivering it's message – women need to gain more rights in Iran and the use of stoning as an accepted form of punishment must be abolished. But as a film, it is heavy-handed and pedestrian, making Ali an almost cartoonish monster and hammering home the message in almost every scene that Iran is a man's country. Allowing all the characters greater depth and complexity would make the film more powerful as a narrative. But for Nowrasteh, the message comes first and the storytelling comes second. So if this is an issue that you feel passionately about, then this film will be something to rally around and to use to draw more attention to your cause.
Iranian filmmakers such as Jafar Panahi in films such as "The Circle" and "Offside" have been making similar arguments for women's rights but with greater artistry and complexity. Panahi's films show with equal force the lack of rights women have but he also provides us with fully fleshed out characters – both male and female – who live in contemporary Iran and are either fighting against the status quo or trying to maintain it. His films are rich, layered works that exist as both works of art and potent political commentaries.
Nowrasteh is nowhere near that good a filmmaker. In simplifying his story he misses making some larger points. By painting Soraya as an innocent woman framed and executed by the men in the village, Nowrasteh misses an opportunity to explore what it is that allows a village of people to succumb to what is essentially mob violence. And by making her an innocent he invokes our sympathy and outrage but he should be making the larger argument that even if she were guilty of adultery, the laws and accepted practices in Iran and other Middle Eastern countries are unreasonable and unjust in their punishments. Stoning – which is nothing more than brutal torture executed by a mob – is barbaric and should simply never be allowed anywhere for any reason.
"The Stoning of Soraya M." (rated R for a disturbing sequence of cruel and brutal violence, and brief strong language, and in Persian with English subtitles) feels more like something you might see on the history channel, a kind of historical re-enactment designed to convey information in a narrative form. So I'd recommend the film from the point of view of someone who's concerned with women issues and would like to see enough of a public outcry occur to actually effect a change. Nowrasteh is obviously passionate about this story, and he's likely to win people over to his cause.
Companion viewing: "The Circle," "Offsides," "The Mirror"