As blunt as its title, “The Stoning of Soraya M.” plays for much of its running time like a dime-store version of Arthur Miller, only to conclude in a wrenching, extraordinarily brutal sequence that is as upsetting as it is moving. Certain to set off a wave of passionate interest in the Persian diaspora, and with Shohreh Aghdashloo in a rare turn as a Farsi-speaking Iranian heroine, this drama, based on Freidoune Sahebjam’s widely touted book about a true case of stoning in the early days of the Islamic republic, will be a tough sell, but is sure to be a hot title for general press coverage, translating into considerable free publicity.
Zahra (Aghdashloo) is tending to a fresh gravesite when she spots a stranger rolling into her village in an ailing car. He is French-Iranian journalist Sahebjam (the curiously cast Jim Caviezel, complete with distracting nose makeup), whom Zahra is conspicuously interested in talking to. As mechanic Hashem (Parviz Sayyad) works on his car, Zahra surreptitiously gives Sahebjam a map to her home.
From the start of director Cyrus Nowrasteh’s screenplay, co-written with wife Betty Griffin Nowrasteh, stilted and obvious dialogue mars the mood of a hillside village that appears to be holding a dark secret. As Zahra’s story takes hold in flashback, scene after scene is blandly presented by the tyro helmer in uninspired widescreen shots (aided by lenser Joel Ransom).
Zahra’s story centers around Soraya (Mozhan Marno), who lives glumly in an arranged marriage to crude, inhuman Ali (Navid Negahban) with their children. Tired of Soraya’s rebellious ways and itching to marry a teen girl, Ali demands that Soraya agree to a new arrangement. She refuses, and, as Ali lacks the cash to pay for a marriage dowry, he is left in a quandary.
His nefarious solution: Accuse Soraya of sleeping with widower Hashem, for whom Soraya has been asked to tend home while he’s at work. Charges are spurious, as the local and extremely shifty mullah (Ali Pourtash) knows and as Soraya’s fiercely protective and imposing aunt Zahra loudly exclaims, but like an inevitable wave that can’t be stopped, a medieval process takes hold that dooms Soraya to death by stoning.
The bulk of the film amounts to a long sit through a flurry of elementary dramatics to get to the fateful day; once it arrives, Nowrasteh’s direction gains added energy and intensity. The methodical preparation and final stoning consume over 20 grueling, intense and horrific minutes, concluding with an intimately realistic display of group brutality that’s rare in the movies. Even this impact, however, is blunted by corny touches.
Good and evil are charted in simplistic terms, so that Aghdashloo’s operatic performance as a stalwart defender of women and humanity is as extreme, in its own way, as Neghaban and Pourtash’s baddies hiding under a cloak of religious “purity.” David Diaan provides some subtlety as the morally split village mayor, while Marno skillfully provides the film’s emotional center. Caviezel uncertainly struggles with his Farsi dialogue.
Producers have kept the exact Mideast shooting location (outside of Iran) a secret, out of concern for hostile radical Islamic response, but locale stands in effectively for Iran. John Debney’s score overdoes it, but is nicely inflected with Persian instrumentation.