Cyrus Nowrasteh film The Stoning of Soraya M.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such a moving and beautifully told story of injustice against women, nor one that was so difficult to watch that at one point I had a hard time refraining from vomiting along with the other women in the film, through a flood of tears and sobs and pain at the rendering on the screen.  The film, The Stoning of Soraya M., contains a lengthy, protracted, gruesome and difficult to watch scene of the stoning of Soraya—so gruesome that in fact women in the crowd of villagers start to vomit at the violence being done, and our grief and visceral reaction, or at least mine, mirrors theirs at watching one of their own being so slowly and painfully beaten to death with small stones.  For it is part of the law that the stones not be so large that death is instantaneous, nor so small that the accused is not harmed—but they must be the right size to inflict pain and suffering for an eventual death.  So this is a movie that requires fortitude to watch and remember, because it stays with you for days, not just because it is so well made and realistic, nor just because it is an adaptation of a true story of Soraya Manutchehri unjustly accused of adultery and then stoned to death in 1986 whose story was released in a 1994 book the film is adapted from, but because it is a story that hasn’t seen its end since according to Amnesty International and news stories the practice of stoning to death still occurs in the world (http://www.iran-press-service.com/ips/articles-2008/january-2008/amnesty-international-calls-iran-to-stop-practice-.shtml).  Furthermore, the status of women remains problematic in so many places and ways, everywhere in the world, that this tale of one woman’s unjust treatment by her husband, village and society is very poignant in itself, not to mention the heightened distress caused by the stoning outcome to the story.

Overall the film is exceptionally well-made, with superb photography and mise-en-scene, fantastic musical score by John Debney, realistic costumes, setting and décor, terrific acting that shifts between Farsi with subtitles and English, but I hesitated at first to write about this film–even though it is important–because it is hard to consider it a “foreign” film although the dialogue shifts between Farsi and English, the setting is supposed to be in Iran, the story is Iranian, while really the director/co-writer (Cyrus Nowrasteh, co-writer with wife) and many of the actors are Iranian-American, most of the beginning credits crew is western, one of the leads is American (Caviezel) and the producers are western.  The story and theme are Iran-focused, but not by Iranian based filmmakers.  Of course the story could not be told from Iran and in fact the film is banned in Iran—probably because of the controversial subject matter and that women often show their uncovered heads—though it purportedly shows there underground in pirated dvds.  But several elements of culture are well-represented in the film, so it deserves to be discussed.

There are some excellent blogs and writing about the film, including a film website: http://muslimahmediawatch.org/2010/05/the-stoning-of-soraya-m-a-review/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chip-hanlon/emthe-stoning-of-soraya-m_b_215868.html

http://www.sorayam.com/

http://www.politicsdaily.com/2009/05/13/he-who-casts-the-first-stone/

The film was the runner-up for the Audience Award at the Toronto 2008 Film Festival, won the “Justice” award from the Berlin Film Festival’s “Cinema for Peace Awards” and also won The Audience Choice Award at The Los Angeles Film Festival and garnered The Critics Choice Award from The Broadcast Critics Film Association (http://newsbusters.org/blogs/matthew-philbin/2010/03/24/stoned-iran-snubbed-hollywood-how-pc-buried-soraya-m#ixzz1LhijwXAD). The film’s theatrical Release Date was 06/26/2009 and the DVD Release Date was 03/09/2010, and the film is available on the web, and from Netflix streaming and purchase from Amazon.com, etc.

The basic story is that a French-Iranian journalist (the author of the book, Freidoune Sahebjam, played by James Caviezel) comes to the small Iranian village called Kupayeh, the journalist’s car having broken down and he forced to spend the day in the village waiting for its repair.  He is approached by an older woman who confides that the men in the village have done a terrible thing, but she is prevented from telling her story due to the arrival of the village mullah and mayor who say she is just a crazy old woman.  Later, the journalist is lured to Zahra Khanum’s (Shohreh Aghdashloo) house where she is able to tell her story and Sahebjam records it.  Strangely, Zahra speaks fluent English, as does the journalist.  She speaks to the journalist in English, whereas the rest of the story told in flashback is in Farsi with subtitles, or the journalist speaks accented Farsi with the mechanic, mayor, mullah.  Her story, then, is the story of Soraya Manutchehri (Mozhan Marno) from the moment she is propositioned by the village mullah who informs her of her husband’s wish to divorce, to her stoning and secret burial by the river by the village women—a period of a couple of weeks at most.  In fact, the film opens with Zahra chasing a dog away from some bones by the river, washing and then reburying them tenderly.  We don’t know whose bones they are yet.  We only learn at the end of the story that the women have secretly buried Soraya there.

 In the case of Soraya, her accusation of adultery is shown to be bogus, a trumped up charge by her husband Ali (Navid Nagahban) who has already tried to get rid of her so he can marry a 14-year-old girl in the town where he works as a prison guard.  He wants a divorce but not to pay for the maintenance of his wife or two daughters (alimony or dowry)—the wife refuses the divorce only because she doesn’t want herself or her daughters to be abandoned to the same impossible poverty that made her be farmed out as a young girl to a man who did everything but rape her before she was married off.  The village mullah offers to take care of her and her daughters if she will in essence prostitute herself by being his “temporary” wife, sigheh.  Aunt Zahra bursts into the room and roundly berates the retreating mullah, and we then learn from Soraya that Ali beats and mistreats her, but that Soraya can’t divorce him if it means abject poverty because it is his duty as a husband to take care of her and her children.

While Soraya is right in theory, practice is quite different, particularly in societies which give most of the powers to men over women, allowing them to divorce without paying alimony or dowry when it is inconvenient for them.  In Ali’s case, he cannot divorce his wife without her agreement, which differs in other parts of the Muslim world where often women have been divorced without their knowledge much less agreement until the deed was already done—although reforms to laws are making this less and less possible.  But in Islamic Iran, we are to understand that the husband must secure his wife’s permission first or he cannot divorce.  But he can beat, berate and torture her all he wants as his wife and no one can interfere.  Interestingly, Ali wants to divorce and take his sons (his heirs) while he would leave his daughters to his wife, another reflection of the devaluation of women.  At no time does the film address the 14-year-old that Ali wants to marry, which is shockingly young and illegal in many societies!  All we know is that she will agree to the marriage in order to save her father from execution and that Ali is totally smitten.  So smitten that he completely disregards the needs of his wife and daughters and only pays attention to his sons and future wife.  But Soraya has an advocate.

Aunt Zahra is as outspoken and aggressive as Soraya is meek and retiring and kindly.  She constantly comes to defend Soraya and offer advice and guidance, though we don’t see that she really understands Soraya except as she learns more about her inner strength and secrets during the troubles that Ali causes.  When Hashem, the mechanic’s, wife dies, Zahra prepares the body for burial, but Soraya chases away the women who come to steal her goods “because she won’t need them anymore”, including her jewelry, fabric and even sewing machine.  When Soraya sympathetically hands over the dead wife’s sewing machine to Hashem, her husband spies their hands accidentally touching and he begins to hatch his plan to accuse her of adultery.  First, he has the mullah as his accomplice because he knows the mullah had been in prison under the Shah.  He threatens to expose him unless he helps him get rid of his wife.  So the mullah goes along with the idea that since Hashem has a mentally disabled young son and no wife now, that Soraya should take over housekeeping and cooking chores for him.  Zahra says Soraya is available for a salary.  Innocent Soraya sees this as an opportunity to save money and be in better financial condition when she is divorced, which she imagines she will eventually have to break down and grant; Ali sees this is the first step in his plan to accuse Soraya of infidelity and improper behavior with Hashem.  Even when we see Ali cavorting with other women, Soraya never tries to accuse him of anything because she feels she needs his financial support for her family’s well-being.  But since Ali is the bread-winner, and Soraya the dispensable, Ali has no qualms about both playing around and playing the jilted husband.

So first he starts rumours that Soraya is unfaithful, and then with the mullah’s support they go after Hashem, finally breaking him down by threatening the welfare of his son and saying that if Hashem is also convicted then his son would go to a mental institution, or even worse, prison.  Less worried about his own safety, Hashem can’t bear to see anything happen to his son, so he agrees to confess that Soraya has been indecent with him—lying on his bed and saying things to him that “only the husband should hear”.  Somehow, Hashem is deemed innocent of any wrongdoing and only Soraya is convicted for adulterous behavior, by the headmen of the village, including her own father who she says will go along with whatever the other men say.  Because, after all, it was he who farmed her out as a youth to be mistreated as a servant because he wanted the money she would bring in—no matter what happened to her.  The village mayor even goes to Soraya to tell her she is accused, and asks if can she prove her innocence.  She retorts that she should be proven guilty, to which the mayor responds that if the husband is accused, he must be proved guilty but when the wife is accused, she must prove her innocence.  Therefore, the film is highly critiquing the new system of laws and mores under the religious leadership—both by showing the mullah to be of questionable background, by highlighting the inequality of the laws, and also showing that Ali is trying to arrange his marriage to the 14-year-old he’s fallen for by sneakily trying to prevent the girl’s father from being executed which he also does for money from the girl’s father.  Of course Soraya cannot prove her innocence—how does anyone prove innocence?  Especially since the men have harassed Hashem into confessing her guilt too.

The village headmen meet and decree that Soraya must be stoned to death for her insults to the honor of the village and Islam.    In fact, the mullah says that for every stone thrown the men will get their honor back.  Aunt Zahra tries to flee the town with Soraya, but is stopped by armed militia who seem to have come to make sure the decree is carried out for this egregious offence in the new Iran of morality and honor for men.  Soraya seems to constantly accept her fate, whereas Zahra fights against it constantly, even to the end when she defies the mullah and mayor and arranges a meeting with the foreign journalist.  Zahra even puts herself in front of Soraya in the village square and cries out that she should be stoned instead because she is an old woman with no children, but she’s callously thrown out of the way while Soraya is buried up to her waist in a pit so that she cannot move but to bend her torso so slightly.  Interestingly, Soraya is dressed all in white, like her innocence or her shroud, but this will not be an instance of her being clean and pure in the eyes of God and ready to go to heaven, so it is an interesting choice of dress.

The village mayor has prayed that if the verdict be just, he be given the strength to carry it out, but that if it be unjust that he be given a sign by God and given the strength to stop the stoning.  At the time of the verdict, a troupe of performers and clowns arrives in town and seeing a crowd begins to loudly try to attract an audience.  The mayor does not perceive this to be a sign, though to the film’s audience, at least to me, it was symbolic of the ludicrousness of the charge and the verdict’s harshness.  Strangely, the troupe hangs around to watch the stoning like one of their spectacles!

Soraya has the opportunity to speak before the stoning—at which point she does not even try to proclaim her innocence or cry out that it is a plot by her husband to get rid of her; instead she talks about the horrible nature of the verdict and asks the villagers how they could do something like that to one of their own.  Well, apparently she is no longer one of their own any more.  Even after a few stones have been thrown and Soraya survives, gushing blood but alive, one of the village women cries to the mayor that it is a sign that she is innocent and should be spared—but he does not stop the stoning.  Instead it proceeds for approximately 20 minutes of screen time, slowly, protracted, bloody, including scenes of Soraya’s two young sons participating in throwing stones.  Soraya does not try to block the stones; she lets them crash into her head and face, and eventually, as it draws on she begins to sob and lament and struggle in her earthen embrace, before finally, slowly and painfully, expiring.  At one point everyone thinks she’s dead, and her husband comes to check, only to see her glazed eye rolling in her head—he yells out “the bitch is not dead” and a new hail of stones descends to extinguish the last bit of life.  Of course by this time the women in the crowd, those sympathetic to Soraya, have been vomiting and crying at the violence, as have I.  This is not a stoning seen symbolically as in the Moroccan film Badis where a few stones are thrown and it’s over.  This scene perdures agonizingly drawn out, in vicious detail, until the very end.  Two of the performers/clowns who arrived in town earlier come and cover up the bloody pulp with a blanket, while the ensuing scenes show a night of revelry and partying with the performance troupe and the village celebrating their “victory”.  Most of the village women are sympathetic to Soraya, but some of them are self-righteous and glad that she is being punished; after all, she stopped them from taking the property of Hashem’s dead wife.  But Zahra and some of the sympathetic village women secretly take Soraya’s body to the river to bury her because she cannot be buried in the village cemetery—and now Zahra tells her story to the journalist because the world needs to know that an innocent woman was so victimized by her husband, her mullah, her father, her village.

As the story finishes, the reporter goes to get his repaired car but the mayor and mullah try to stop him from leaving the village.  They know he’s taped Zahra’s story, so they take the tapes from his bag and destroy them, even threatening to kill the journalist.  But he hastens to his car, screaming that he’ll go to the authorities, and careens away before they can try anything.  On the way out of town, we see Zahra standing by the side of the road triumphantly waving a cassette tape which she gives to the journalist as he leaves, then stands in the middle of the road to prevent the militia from firing upon the car with their guns as it speeds away.  Zahra yells out loudly that now the whole world will know what they’ve done.  And since the journalist does eventually write a book, and eventually this film is made from it—yes the world does indeed come to know the grisly and sad story of Soraya M. and through her story, we hopefully appreciate the plight of women all over the world who are mistreated because of their husband’s misdeeds, or religious fakery, or community mob mentality.

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About sandrellita

I'm a film studies professor, fiber artist, potter and jeweler but my first love is cinema, thus this blog on cinema and culture.
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