Posted in: Disc Reviews by Gino Sassani on July 21st, 2010
“Don’t act like the hypocrite, who thinks he can conceal his wiles, while loudly quoting the Koran.” – Hafez (14th Century Iranian Poet)
The Stoning Of Soraya M is based upon a book written by Freidoune Sahebjam. The book is currently banned in Iran as well as other countries. It is based on a true story. The book and now the film have caused quite a bit of controversy over the years. Director Cyrus Nowrasteh is no stranger to controversial topics. He appears to have a flair for significant historical events, and his work has shown some insight into the actual significance of his subjects. His acclaimed Path to 9/11 stood out from the rather large crowd of films on that subject. He brought many of the more subtle observations to the surface. Other films like The Day Reagan Was Shot and 10,000 Black Men Named George explore quite opposite subjects with equal intensity. So it should come as no surprise that he would tackle a subject that has been out there for 30 years when no one else was willing to touch it. It might seem somewhat opportunistic that The Stoning Of Soraya M comes when a planned actual stoning in Iran has made international headlines. And as the international community has expressed outrage to such an extent that said stoning has, for now, been cancelled. Such is not the case. This movie has been in some form of development or another with Nowrasteh and his wife since the 1990′s. The film itself was released almost two years ago. The fact that this movie is coming out on home video now is not a matter of exploitation. It can best be described as: It’s about time.
Soraya (Marno) is a mother with four children living in a small village in Iran in the days just following the fall of the Shah and the rise of Khomeini. Her husband has found someone else. Ali (Negahban) wants to take up with a 14-year-old girl who offers him a bit more excitement. Her father is scheduled to be executed, and Ali has offered his help in the father’s case for the hand of the young maiden. Soraya does not wish to jeopardize the lives of her two daughters so that Ali and their two sons can live better in the city. She would have no way to care for that remnant of her family except to practically prostitute herself to the local Mullah (Pourtash). This she is unwilling to do. When a local mechanic Hashem (Sayyad) loses his wife, Soraya is commanded to work for the widower, providing the domestic services of a wife. That means she is required to stay long hours in the household providing for the widower and his son. That’s just the break Ali was waiting for. He begins to create murmurs in the village that the two are having an affair. He and the Mullah, whom he has some dangerous secret knowledge of, convince Hashem to lie and admit there is an affair. The two men then convince the town mayor Ebrahim (Diaan) to hold a trial. Of course, said trial does not include any of the village’s women, including the accused herself to provide a defense. Under such circumstances, the only verdict is one of guilt. The only sentence is death by stoning to be carried out immediately.
The film is told from the perspective of Soraya’s Aunt Zahra (Aghdashloo) who has been privy to much of the conspiracy against her niece. She sees an opportunity to tell the world what happened to her when a French journalist (Caviezel) breaks down while passing through the village. While his car is being repaired, Zahra has cornered him and is telling her story for his tape recorder.
Whatever your politics might happen to be, this film will present you with images that you will never forget. But I’m sure that it is the filmmakers hope that it is not merely the images that fail to escape you. We live in a society that values justice, some would argue, above all else. Nowrasteh utilizes a stunning realistic location along with primarily Iranian, and almost all Middle Eastern, actors. The combination must have been a nightmare on the production, as the bonus features appear to confirm. But the level of authenticity adds as much to the realism as the combination CG, makeup effects, and animatronics the stoning itself provides. I found myself so immediately swept into this world. The characters and circumstances became real enough for me that the stoning’s graphic nature and intense depiction was the only natural place this film could have gone. Anything else would have betrayed everything that came before it. I’ve heard the term torture porn attached to this film. Nothing could be so unfair or further from the truth. To compare this film to something like Hostel or Saw is to have missed the point entirely, which is exactly the kind of thinking that allows things like this to go on today. There is just no hope for anyone who could sit through the first hour and a half of this movie and come to such a ludicrous conclusion.
Finally, enough can’t be said about the cast. Each of them brought the same realism to their characters that Christien Tinsley brought to the stoning. Parviz Sayyad brought such nuance to his character of Hashem. You feel almost as sorry for him as you do for Soraya herself. There are many moments, but there is a scene during the stoning when Hashem is invited to participate. Without any dialog being necessary he reflects our own feelings in his face. There’s little mystery why he is considered one of the best Iranian actors out there. Shohreh Aghdashloo carries much of the film’s emotional weight as the aunt trying to both save Soraya and be her strength in those final moments. I believed her every moment, and so will you. Of course, a lot of credit goes to Mozhan Marno, who up until this time was not a very experienced actress. It was a difficult role, I’m sure. This was, after all, her Soraya’s story.
The Stoning Of Soraya M is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an old style MPEG-2 codec at an average of only about 15 mbps. There are some very sweeping shots of the locations that could have been translated better with a more high-definition-friendly codec. For some reason the studio decided to go with a DVD codec and a bit rate just barely over the capabilities of that format. What you get might be high definition, but at the lowest order. It’s a shame, because patches of brilliance do manage to push through. There is a sunset shot over the village during the stoning that is quite beautiful. It’s a great shot in stark contrast to the brutality only hinted at by the dust that the stones make on the dry earth from afar. The movie was filmed on the Viper HD system and deserved a better transfer.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 really does everything that is expected of it. There’s a lot of dialog and most of it in Farsi, so for most of us, hearing it isn’t as important. I can’t understand it anyway. There are some rather nice audio effects here. There’s a scene just as Soraya is about to die where the sound of rocks striking her melds into the flapping of birds. These touches keep the sound field alive in what for the most part is a utilitarian audio presentation.
There are 2 Audio Commentaries. One is by the husband and wife writing team of Cyrus and Betsy. She actually does quite a bit more of the talking here. It’s obvious that her passion moved the film toward reality. She often remarks that in some ways she identified with Soraya, and that she felt her presence often during the process. To listen to them talk, it appears she provided many of the key elements.
The second Commentary comes with a group of the film’s crew.
Making Of … In Three Parts: (43:03) SD For some reason this feature is presented in a squeezed full-frame format when it is obviously a widescreen feature. You’ll have to stretch it out to make it look correct. Just another example that the studio really never gave this film the respect it deserved. The feature is in three parts, but a trusty play-all option is provided. The footage is often raw and the interview clips rather candid and refreshingly unrehearsed.
There is a tendency in the media and the public in general to turn a blind eye to atrocities that are going on in other places of the globe, particularly at a time when the United States’ president has been touring the world apologizing for his own country. While I won’t deny that our system is not perfect and should, indeed, be always evolving, it is still the best system available anywhere on the planet. Give Nowrasteh and the entire cast and crew credit for taking on a practice of brutality that goes on to this very day. And their decision was not without risk. Many of the people who declined to be involved in this project did so out of a justified fear that they could be harmed for their involvement. Since the fall of the Shah in Iran, it is believed that over 1000 such stonings like the one depicted here have occurred with the blessing of the political and religious leaders of that nation’s communities. There are those who believe this film goes too far in its depiction of the final titular act. It does indeed take up almost a full half hour of the film. You might believe that it is unfair for the audience to be subjected to such bold brutality. Imagine what it must be like to live … and die that way. Some might think these people are nuts to risk their lives to create a film like this. Watch it for yourself. “Then you decide who is crazy.”