Friday night, I saw The Stoning of Soraya M with several dozen of my closest friends.
The movie – which has garnered plenty of critical praise – depicts exactly what the title says it depicts. A true story of a “legally”-sanctioned mob lynching in Iran in 1986, the movie is an examination of the corruption of power and the power of and pornographically-seductive nature of mobs.
Soraya is the wife of Ali. Together, they have four children. Ali clearly relishes the power that Iran’s Islamic revolution gave to men; a misogynistic monster, he’s well on his way toward turning their two boys into angry little clones. And his eye is wandering – a 14 year old girl. He demands a divorce, is rebuffed, and sets off a trail of events that lead, with a sickening inevitability that wafts over you like a foul foreboding cloud, to the eponymous murder.
If it doesn’t sound like a great date movie, you might be right – although modern American “women’s studies” students should be encouraged to see it, if only to see how very, very good things have been for American women in comparison for the past 200 years or so.
The film is almost unbearably intense; the stoning is brutal (as befits such a brutal form of ritualized murder which, the movie’s closing montage points out, is still practiced all over the world) and, to those whose tastes have been trained to expect the Hollywood last-minute reprieve or rescue, inevitable. Once events take their fatal plunge from the absurd to the depraved, there’s really no way off the track.
The description above gives away a fair amount of the story, and yet none of its substance. It’s an excellent movie that I recommend, even as I advise you that it takes an emotional investment.
I thought two things as I watched, trying to absorb it all:
- The film is affecting in the same way as a trip to the Holocaust Museum is; you don’t feel “good” as you leave, but you add a new item to your internal moral “to do” list as you leave. If you are discerning, by the way, that lesson is “corruption and mob rule are awful evil things”, not ‘Islam Sucks”. We’ll come back to that.
- I thought “The PC police are going to load their rhetorical cannon with grapeshot” over this movie.
Sure enough, Steven Holden of the New York Times writes an impermeably imperceptive review for whom unthinking PC must be the only motivation:
The Stoning of Soraya M.,” a true story of religiously sanctioned misogyny and mob violence in an Iranian village, thoroughly blurs the line between high-minded outrage and lurid torture-porn.
And it was with that line that I checked out. Holden missed the entire point. It was torture-porn, all right – for the people in the village, for whom the stoning was the outlet for a sickening onslaught of rage and blood-lust that could only be described as “pornographic”.
The screenplay’s oratorical tone is partly intentional, since the movie’s heavy-handed style harks back to the kind of 1950s Hollywood quasi-biblical parables starring Victor Mature and Jean Simmons that paraded themselves as sacred.
I’m not sure exactly what Holden is aiming for here; if he’s trying to draw a parallel between the unnamed movies of the fifties, he’s wrong; nothing is “paraded as sacred”; there is merely a flash or two of hope, inasmuch as Soraya’s aunt Zahrah (portrayed by Shorhah Agdashloo, from House of Sand and Fog and from Day Three of 24 (the mother of the sleeper-cell femily) manages to get the story of the murder to a French-Iranian jouralist (played by James Caviezel), but otherwise, the film is a horrified trip through the ultimate profanity.
Visually as well as narratively, the movie embraces extremes. The village is arid, the countryside around it paradisically lush.
One wonders if Mr. Holden needs this little swatch of fairly elementary symbolism explained to him via some medium scrutable to the modern, paper-thin, trite, quasi-literate film critic, perhaps a tattoo across Zooey Deschanel’s back would get his attention; “In this beautiful place, a malignant ugliness has bloomed into hideous, ugly life”.
Almost everything is either-or. Soraya is a beautiful martyred innocent and Zahra a stormy feminist prophet. With the exception of the mayor (David Diaan), who has qualms about the execution, and Mr. Caviezel’s reporter, who appears only briefly at the beginning and end of the movie, the men are fiendishly villainous.
Mr. Negahban’s Ali, who resembles a younger, bearded Philip Roth, suggests an Islamic fundamentalist equivalent of a Nazi anti-Semitic caricature. With his malevolent smirk and eyes aflame with arrogance and hatred, he is as satanic as any horror-movie apparition. The fraudulent local mullah, who collaborates in his scheme after being rejected by Soraya, might as well be carrying a pitchfork and breathing fire.
And there’s the PC reference. While the film references murder that is judicially sanctioned under Islamic law because, for those who missed it, it’s based on a true story of a murder sanctioned under Islamic law, the film takes pains to point out what Mr. Holden seemingly can’t be bothered to: the local mullah is a former criminal, sprung from hard time under the Shah’s regime by the revolution, a man whose piety is no deeper than a layer of mascara.
Would could also describe Steven Holden’s perceptiveness:
Yet it must be said that “The Stoning of Soraya M.” wields a crude power. At last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the movie was voted runner-up to “Slumdog Millionaire” for the audience choice award. As “The Passion of the Christ” showed, the stimulation of blood lust in the guise of moral righteousness has its appeal.
Mr. Holden: If “being inspired to try to not be the mindless drone that unthinkingly participates in a mob atrocity” is “moral righteousness”, I think I’ll cop to it.
See the movie if you get the chance. Well worth it.