Films with a social message or attempt to educate have always had a difficult time finding their place with mainstream audiences. People tend to use films to escape the turmoil of their daily lives and in this way often turn to summer blockbusters, thrillers and animated stories to get away. Often, as in the case of The Stoning of Soraya M., message films have inadequate marketing budgets and because of a limited theatrical release do poorly at the box office. In contrast, big budget getaways are screened in thousands of theaters and involve big stars, directors and producers with proven track records that often dwarf their more mindful counterparts. Yet filmmakers are driven by these passion projects and from time to time their films do find wider distribution. Films that range from such diverse subject matter as concentration camp atrocities during World War II (Schindler’s List) and the painful struggles of AIDS victims in a prejudicial modern-day America (Philadelphia) are renewed after earning top awards that can rejuvenate initial lackluster attention. Just recently Kathryn Bigelow’s Hurt Locker, a small message film in its own right, exemplifies the second-life of a movie as a result of critical success – it doesn’t hurt either when your small film becomes the cinematic equivalent of David and Goliath where the giant is personified by a juggernaut like Avatar.
The Stoning of Soraya M. is a 2008 film by Cyrus Nowrasteh and based on the 1994 novel of the same name by French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam. Nowrasteh co-wrote the screenplay with his wife, Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh. The film has polarized audiences and critics alike; proponents citing the importance of shining a light on the archaic practice of what equates to religious sanctioned capital punishment, and opponents countering on the perceived negative portrait of Muslim men, women and the religion of Islam. Some believe beneath the surface of the film is purposeful Islamaphobia or intentional prejudice toward Islam and Muslims, fueled in no uncertain terms by Hollywood. Further condemnation cites the misuse and gratuitous violence as lurid, akin to “torture porn” as critic Stephen Holden wrote in his New York Times review. Others have compared The Stoning to Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, a film that recounts the bloody spectacle of the crucifixion of Christ, even going so far as to note the peculiarity of Jim Caviezel in both films. But brutality is not an ingredient that these films possess in any greater quantity than any number of Hollywood action films, from Reservoir Dogs to the stylized violence of Sin City; perhaps what differs in this case is the knowledge that this film is based on a true story and the characters are every bit as three-dimensional and believable as our own neighbors, co-workers, family and friends. What lives just beneath the surface of this film, beneath the violence and hypocrisy, is that we get to know this woman and all at once are stricken with the realization that these tragic events continue to happen to this day.
This is not a film for everyone. The subject matter is at times painfully austere and difficult to sit through without respite. The very idea that such brutality exists anywhere in the 20th century is reason enough for outrage, yet as a film with a message we are entranced and repelled at the same time. Whereas the film attempts to alleviate this with a trite Hollywood bookend, tying the start of the film together where the reporter (Jim Caviezel) character meets Saroya’s aunt and thus begins the account of the killing the day before, many suggest it is not enough to take the pain away or too simple in the fairytale handling of atrocity by American filmmakers.
It cannot go without saying that the critical success of the film is due in no uncertain terms to the film’s star, Shoreh Aghdashloo, who you should recall from her galvanizing performance in the 2003 film House of Sand and Fog for which she was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Aghdashloo is captivating as Zahra, a self-assured, outspoken matriarch of a remote Iranian village who must defend her niece when she is accused of infidelity. We learn over the course of a grueling match of wits and deceit as her niece Soraya becomes the victim of her husbands conniving to put her out of the picture so he can marry another. When all efforts to force her to divorce him fail, he enlists the help of the village authorities in manufacturing the evidence needed to put Soraya to death for adultery according to the Sharia, the sacred law of Islam.
The Stoning of Soraya M. will no doubt continue to elicit debate over the portrayal of men, women and the practice of the religion of Islam. It will continue to be damned and praised. Where violence meets the aggregate of time and understanding, revealing in part the truth of our actions, there is a chance we might learn from this story and others like it. We might not agree on just how such conversations should be conducted or when, but what is evident here is the electrical storm brewing, sometimes just out of view, over the way in which the collective ‘we’ live, die, and carry on. Films with a message often ask, do you have any “giants” in your life and if so, how do you face them and with what stones will you use to best them?