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 MThere 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

I think this is the cue for Irfan Yusuf or Waheed Aly to get right of reply with a "yes, but, you Christians were burning accused witches at the stake a mere 400 years ago so therefore there is NO PROBLEM WITH ISLAM" piece.
Rod Blaine | 27 May 2010

Perhaps it was the egos and self-interest of brutal and bullying men that wrote these barbaric practices into the code of Sharia law to start with.
Joseph Lanigan | 27 May 2010

Rod Blaine's point is that Islam remains in a mediaeval time-warp, whereas the Christianity that is compatible with the Enlightened secular state has progressed past its Old Testament origins ... as has Judaism.

One hopes that Islam, perhaps following a lead from Indonesia, is doing likewise.

If the West gets off Iran's case, its theocracy will return to the insignificance it had during Mossadegh's premiership, and the blasphemy that is Sharia will go the same way.

That was six decades ago, back before a consortium of oil-importing Anglophone nations overthrew Mossadegh's government and installed the Shah.
David Arthur | 27 May 2010

David, why do you call Sharia blasphemy? For most pious Muslims it is the a guide by which they live every aspect of their lives. It is based on the Koran and the hadiths of Mohammed. If you follow Sharia law, you are following the same path as Mohammed. He is regarded as the perfect man, a model for all Muslims. Life without Sharia for Muslims is unthinkable.
Joseph Lanigan | 28 May 2010

The same sadistic circus of self interest, ego and bullying by men as depicted as teachings of Islam and Shariah is no worse than the treatment/stoning of women guilty of adultery with a priest by the parochial church of ours.

Worse if the woman has conceived a child. The powerless woman is secondary in these instances to, completely at the mercy of the hierarchy.

There has been no Savior for them either and we haven't even touched on the children if the pregnancy hasn't been terminated.
L Newington | 11 July 2010


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