Best of 2010: Stoning death by male ego


The Stoning of Soraya M (MA). Director: Cyrus Nowrasteh. Starring: Shohreh Aghdashloo, Mozhan Marnò, James Caviezel, Navid Negahban, Ali Pourtash, David Diaan, Parviz Sayyad. Running time: 114 minutes

The Stoning of Soraya M

First published in Eureka Street on 27 May 2010.

There is a story in the Christian Gospel in which Jesus intercedes on behalf of a woman who has been sentenced to death by stoning. The woman's crime is that she has been 'caught in adultery', although we are given no details as to the circumstances.

The story makes the universal point that no person is sinless — 'Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,' Jesus famously declares, and there are no takers. But a more pertinent interpretation is that he is correcting a specific injustice that has resulted from acute social gender inequality. The woman's guilt, or lack thereof, is secondary: as a woman she is powerless, and Jesus' words and actions empower her.

In The Stoning of Soraya M we see another such inequality at play, in an (almost) modern-day provincial Iranian setting. But unlike the Gospel story, there is no saviour present who is willing or able to intercede and prevent the injustice from taking place.

It is rare that a film causes seasoned critics to weep, but The Stoning of Soraya M is such a film. It is essentially one long setup for its violent climax, which would make for tedious viewing, if not for the omen of the film's title, and the abiding sense of horror at the mundane circumstances from which the threatened climax eventually arises. We hope and pray that the inevitable will be diverted. But The Stoning of Soraya M is relentless and, when the end does come, we find ourselves feeling as helpless as the victim buried chest-deep in the sand. Her experience becomes ours. No wonder we weep.

Precocious widow Zahra (Aghdashloo) is both storyteller and the film's moral centre. She relates her bleak tale to a travelling journalist (Caviezel, the actor who played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, here reduced from saviour to witness). Her niece Soraya, Zahra tells him, has fallen victim to the machinations of her brutish husband.

We see the story in flashback. The villainous Ali (Negahban) wants to divorce Soraya (Marnò) so he can marry a 14-year-old girl. But Soraya, fearing this abusive man yet certain he will not support her and their daughters if she allows him to leave, refuses the divorce. So Ali plots to frame her for adultery, and colludes with the village religious elder (Pourtash) and mayor Ebrahim (Diaan) to ensure that she is convicted and executed. Bolstered by religious rhetoric and fuelled by the insidiousness of village gossip culture, the task proves all too easy.

Zahra is spittingly righteous. The powerful men of the village call her a troublemaker, but really she is the truth-speaker, the prophet, scornful and disruptive of their patriarchal order. She knows her God is great, and that the men's appeals to his word are fallacious. When she folds her headscarf across her pursed lips it is a gesture of contempt, of defiance, not of submission. Ultimately her defiance is in vain.

The men's actions are shown to be against God's order. At a decisive moment in the lead-up to the stoning, Ebrahim asks God for a sign to indicate that he should put a stop to the proceedings. At that precise moment, a travelling carnival, complete with dancing monkeys, rolls into town. God could not have offered a more apt assessment of the nature of the occasion. But Ebrahim chooses not to see the sign; instead he allows the sadistic circus that is the trial and execution of Soraya M to proceed.

Once the stoning begins, it does not let up. Be warned: this is gruelling stuff; the moment threatened by the film's title executed in agonising, visceral detail. The only respite occurs when Hasham (Sayyad), Soraya's pliable employer who was bullied into testifying against her, at least finds strength to not participate in her murder. It's futile mercy: the others redouble their bloodthirsty attack. By the end we pray for death to finally relieve Soraya.

The Stoning of Soraya M is adapted from French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam's 1994 non-fiction book of the same name. It is a condemnation of a barbaric practice that occurs in some places under the auspices of Shariah law. In the case of Soraya M the custom is shown to be less about violence inherent to the teachings of Islam and Shariah than about the egos and self-interest of brutal and bullying men.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by Melbourne's The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue. He was Chair of the Interfaith Jury at the 2009 St George Brisbane International Film Festival.

Topic tags: The Stoning of Soraya M, Cyrus Nowrasteh.Shohreh Aghdashloo, Mozhan Marnò, James Caviezel



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Existing comments

A thunderous powerful indictment of the death penalty and the ignorance and opportunism that supports it.
Vacy Vlazna | 06 January 2011

it's not male bullies that keep that custom. it's the culture itself. females would just support as much as males for stoning. just also consider circumcision practiced on young girls by both parents. they'd rather marry off their daughters too knowing all consequences.
AZURE | 06 January 2011

In Australia we've managed to reduce the smoking habit to a minimum. Australian have so far been unsuccessful at reducing the violence of porn to a minimum. Is it because porn lobbyists are more influential than those who see the ever more violent porn industry, and income spinner, as a threat to women everywhere?
Joyce | 06 January 2011

Azure, the women in those countries in question are not unlike Jane Austen's Mrs. Bingley, 'one of those young ladies who seek to recommend themselves to the other sex by undervaluing their own.'
Violet | 06 January 2011

Tim Kroenert wrote, "The men's actions are shown to be against God's order." This shows a distinct lack of knowledge of what drives some Islamic societies to mandate death by stoning. For Muslims Mohammed is the perfect man. His conduct and words guide Muslims in all facets of their lives. If he forbade it, it is forbidden. If he allowed it, it is allowed. The below link discusses the punishment of adulterers in Islam. Stoning is not prescribed in the Quran, but it is mentioned frequently in the hadiths, the reported sayings and deeds of Mohammed. Whilst the arrival of the travelling circus may be a powerful metaphor of God's disapproval of the stoning for the movie, such things matter not one iota in the real world. Until Muslim authorities reject the authenticity of these verses, or discard them as outdated, stonings will continue.
Nguyen Duy | 07 January 2011

I feel for these poor women trapped into brutal marriages and having to live with bullies. It has nothing to do with religion just males forcing their will on women. shame on them
Tricia | 21 January 2011

sometimes I feel as if we are still monkeys and primates and not too different. I think now it is a time for change, we have to change our world, reshape it so at least our future decedents can live in it with peace. We have to completely eliminate religion and religious thought.
faisal | 03 July 2012


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