'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.
Not since "The Passion of the Christ" has a film depicted a public execution in such graphic detail. In the approximately 20 minutes during which the killing unfolds, the camera repeatedly returns to study the battered face and body of the title character (Mozhan Marno) as she is stoned to death. Buried up to her waist in a hole dug for the occasion, she is pelted with rocks and profanity by the male villagers, including her father, husband and two sons, until she dies.
The condemned woman is innocent of the charge of adultery brought against her by her sadistic husband, Ali (Navid Negahban), who wants to get rid of her so he can marry a 14-year-old girl. According to ancient Islamic law, a wife's adultery is punishable by death. Ali pressures the corrupt local bigwigs to prosecute her based on the rumors he ignited and false evidence they coerce from a widower for whom she has worked as a housekeeper.
In one of the film's sickeningly exploitative touches, Ali, wearing a triumphal grin, examines his wife's crumpled, blood-drenched body to make sure she is dead and discovers signs of life in a rolled-up eye. The stoning is promptly resumed.
The casting of Jim Caviezel as Freidoune Sahebjam, the Paris-based Iranian journalist whose 1994 best seller. "The Stoning of Soraya M.: A True Story," recounted the incident, lends the movie a queasy connection to "The Passion of the Christ," in which Caviezel played Jesus.
Directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh, who wrote the screenplay with his wife, Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh, and filmed in an unidentified location to avoid possible reprisals, the movie re-enacts events that took place in Kupayeh, a small village in southwestern Iran, in August 1986. Sahebjam had surreptitiously returned to Iran from Paris to report on life under the Islamic government, then only 7 years old.
Stranded in the village when his car breaks down, he is accosted by Soraya's aunt Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo, familiar from "House of Sand and Fog"), who asks him to tape-record her account of her niece's killing the day before. (In the book, two weeks have passed.) Aghdashloo, with her deep, husky voice, brings an anguished intensity to leaden, redundant dialogue that rings like strident editorial boilerplate. 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.
Visually as well as narratively, the movie embraces extremes. The village is arid, the countryside around it paradisiacally lush. In one scene birds flying out of the bushes are compared to angels as John Debney's mystically overawed music pours on the syrup. 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 Caviezel's reporter, who appears only briefly at the beginning and end of the movie, the men are fiendishly villainous.
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.
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.