The Stoning Of An Uptown Audience

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

12 thoughts on “The Stoning Of An Uptown Audience

  1. What I think it comes down to is that there are those of us who are capable of seeing the world for what it is, on its own terms, and those who just aren’t. This sounds like a movie for the first group, but not the second.

    Hey, reality is a bitch. Some people need strong filters in the form of drugs, denial, or ideology to get through it at all. I worry about them, but I do see how their lives must be rather uncomplicated.

    This sounds like a movie I’d like to see. I can take the complications.

  2. You never came back to why it’s not “Islam sucks”. Islam was the mechanism. The Hebrews used to stone people, but they seem to have abandoned the practice.

  3. Mitch – thanks for this blog. I was at the 7 p.m. show, had to walk out at one point. A friend from Wisconsin wanted to know what I thought – here’s my 2 cents’ worth to add to your astute observations:
    The story, in & of itself, is riveting. I now want/need to read the book. The movie was gut-wrenching. I guess it’s one thing to mentally know & be aware that stoning is going on (even now) in many countries that are ruled by Sharia law. It is another horrific thing, to watch it on the “big screen.”

    Yes, I believe we owe it to Soraya M to tell her story.I am thankful that brave people worked to make & distribute this movie.

    I think we live in a comfortable society, oblivious to most of the atrocities & the injustices that go on around us on a daily basis.

    Should I encourage everyone to go see it? Yes, I should.
    & I should also warn you that watching a woman die by stoning is more awful than I could ever imagine.

    This should be a wake up call to millions of women around the globe as to what’s at stake – what’s going on, why the Long War on Terror matters.
    Just don’t equate watching this movie with entertainment. For far too many, this is real life. This is death.

  4. Most – as in, the vast majority – of Moslems have abandoned it too. You don’t see it in places that have a more or less healthy rule of law – India, Indonesia.

  5. One other thing, Mitch. After we got home, with our friends, and had a shot of tequila to calm our nerves a bit, a different aspect of the story hit us:

    the village men and unfortunately, the young boys, all knew what to do.
    There was a known, understood process to follow.
    Many of the young boys who participated in 1986 are now in their mid 30’s. The “South Pacific” song – you have to be carefully taught to learn to hate – comes to mind.
    Is it too much to ask to think they would now condemn their own barbaric behavior? I fear so.

  6. Saudi Arabia has a vigorous rule of law. I seem to recall several youg girls being burned to death in a school because they did not have the proper apparel when trying to escape the fire.

  7. Stonings per se are in decline. Honor killings and beheadings have now happened in the United States – it’s all just a matter of barbaric degree, isn’t it? Where are the women? Where is their outrage & outcry?
    I know more men who get riled up about this, than I do women.

  8. Jane,

    Thanks for your observations!


    I can agree with everything you’re saying, and still correctly say you’re missing the point. Yes, people who cling to a pre-1100AD version of Islam commit these sorts of atrocities. So, for that matter, did people in pre-1800 America; “The Stoning of Soraya M” could just as easily have been about the burning at the stake of blacks suspected of starting a fire in New York City in the 1600s, or the murder of millions of Jews and Gypsies sixty years ago, or the torture and lynching of three black men in Duluth not 100 years ago; it’s about the atrocities humans commit to humans they see as less-human they are – whether they’re black, Jewish, or in the case of the story, female.

    It’s not so much that Islam sucks as that humans suck, if we let them.

  9. That may well be. Sadly the institutional legitamacy imparted by the Hadiths in the 21st century is a tad more relevant than a pack of Duluth rednecks in 1920 or the ever popular Nazis. Atrocities need compulsion, after all.

  10. Pingback: Hot Air » Blog Archive » Is Soraya “torture porn”? Hardly

  11. Pingback: Shocker: NYTimes Hates “Torture Porn” The Stoning of Soraya M – Infidels Paradise

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