Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Review: The Stoning of Soraya M 

I confess: I tend to be emotional at movies. If you don't want to sit next to a man that cries, don't take me to a sad movie in a theater. It seems in fact that the sappier ones are the ones that make me cry more.

So when I was given an opportunity to screen Cyrus Nowrasteh's "The Stoning of Soraya M", I wanted to watch it alone. Surely the story, of a woman in 1986 Iran who is stoned to death for a crime she did not commit and, even if she had, would seem so out of proportion to the crime (at least to us in the West) would be done with enough sadness and emotion to get me to shed tears.

Amazingly, not a one. (And this was after I had read Ed's review from last September.)

The vehicle for the story is a woman, Zohra, Soraya's aunt, who tells the story to a French Iranian journalist, Freidoune Sahebjan, who takes the story out of the village in Iran and writes Soraya's memoir. (I have not read the book.) Zohra is played by Shohreh Aghdashloo, of "House of Sand and Fog" fame (and, for long readers here, Dina Araz in Season 4 of '24'.) A widow who lives on her own -- itself a rarity in 1980s Iran -- Zohra is the mentor of Soraya, who is in a cruel marriage to Ali. He has a position of power in the Revolution though no title and no sign of how he earns his money. You're left to assume that. They have four children, two sons and two daughters.

Ali wants to be rid of Soraya to marry another woman, and schemes with a man who wears clerical robes but was once a prisoner of the Revolution. It turns out in Iran that owning your own priest has its advantages. Ali makes use of that to finally scheme to use the law to condemn Soraya to death by stoning. (I am told by a friend that Ali and the two eyewitnesses were sent to prison later for obstruction of justice -- I find nothing on the Internet to verify this.)

Soraya is played by Mozhan Marno, a newer actress last seen in Traitor. Her character is engaging in the movie. She is kind and bears her burdens of having her sons turned against her by Ali and her sole care of the two daughters. The scenes with them are tender and gut-wrenching, knowing as you do what their fate will be. Ali, played remarkably by Navid Negahban (an absolutely perfect villain), turns her sons against her. I felt the most emotion for the two boys who too late seem to understand the injustice done their mother.

But somehow the movie is not maudlin. Nor is it an indictment of Islam. The mayor Ebrahim will remind almost everyone of Pilate, unsure throughout whether the decision to stone Soraya is just. (Ed describes him as "a good man who refuses to stop an injustice," but I think he's more torn by custom and religion than Ed's description suggests.) Zohra is as devout a Muslim as anyone in the film, surely more than the local mullah. The corruption belongs to a village caught in a time when women are chattel. As much as the women of the village try to accept that the stoning is just, the scene eventually turns them all away. Soraya is not even permitted a proper burial; the women take her body to a riverbank instead.

The movie's premiere in very limited theaters starts June 26 (including the Edina Landmark 4), and obviously could not come at a better time. Mir Hossain Mousavi's wife, Zahra Rahnavard, was insulted by Ahmadinejad in a public debate. Much of Mousavi's based of power is female, urbane, the very antithesis of the women of Soraya's village. Soraya will stand as the image of women as seen by the rural base of Ahmadinejad's popularity. Aghdashloo's Zohra will be instead the image of modernity. Because that's really what's at stake in Iran and the protests: Before you can expect them to be part of a solution to the Middle East's violence, you have to make them part of the modern, connected world. Soraya's village was not -- the final scenes show how the story gets out.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. And this movie needs more screens, if it is to work best.