“The Stoning of Soraya M. (2009) cuts into the soul with its fierce, unflinching narrative of Soraya Manutchehri, a 35-year-old woman stoned to death in a small Iranian village in 1986 after being convicted of adultery. Her death was the subject of Freidoune Sahebjam’s 2009 novel, La Femme Lapidée, a book banned in Iran.
This award-winning indie film lovingly caresses the beautiful, wounded face of Aunt Zahra (breathtakingly played by the luminous Shohreh Aghdashloo) who is devastated by the stoning of her niece Soraya (perfectly portrayed by Mozhan Marno). Zahra pleads with a journalist (James Caviezel as Sahebjam)) to tell the world about the outrage which had just taken place the day before. Sahebjam, stranded in the tiny Iranian village where his car is being repaired, does not know what to expect.
Still raw from Soraya’s ignominious end, Zahra unravels the tragedy. Ali, Soraya’s abusive husband, was eager to get rid of his wife so he could marry a fourteen-year old girl. Wishing to avoid child support for their two young daughters while taking the two young sons with him, Ali concocts a plot to charge Soraya with adultery, punishable by death by stoning. Blackmailing village leaders to spread false rumors, Ali threatens “witnesses” to testify against her.
Stoning is execution by torture. At various periods throughout history ancient Greeks, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Japanese (among others) practiced stoning. But some of the most disturbing moral issues in “The Stoning of Soraya M” raise fundamental questions of courage in the face of family sacrifice: how willing are we to come forth and be the bearers of truth in the face of threats to our own loved ones, even when the victim of lies is a close friend? And what happens to the larger community who witnesses and tolerates violence? Or, to the children who will model their parents’ behavior and that of other adults in the community?
Soraya M’s situation places the viewer on the receiving end –of a visceral, unnerving experience of stoning, — rather than in a more passive, analytical, removed position. The astonishing, grisly climax doomed the film’s chances for traditional distribution in the U.S., but the filmmakers insisted realism was essential to call attention to the horror of stoning. I don’t think everyone could watch the camera lingering on the bloody sequence in slow motion. I have never seen such realistic cinematography of an execution, and still can’t figure out how that sequence was filmed. The anger, rage, and frustration at such injustice are a silent scream, palpable in the filmmakers’ voice. If you are not faint of heart, “The Stoning of Soraya M” will remain an unforgettable film that raises uncomfortable, but necessary ethical questions.