By John M. Urbancich
Manipulating religion for the purposes of personal gain is explored in the often-startling telling of “The Stoning of Soraya M.,” based on an international best seller and the sad, but true story spelled out in the title of the film.
It’s 1986 Iran and fundamentalist strong man Ayatollah Khomeini (remember him during the dark days of the hostage crisis?) too easily has risen to ridiculous heights of fanatical power. Into a small village drives a journalist (James Caviezel), whose car breaks down just in time for a determined woman named Zorah (the mesmerizing Shohreh Aghdashloo) – herself considered wildly mad by zealots – to detail the recent murder of her niece.
Soraya (the amazingly sympathetic Mozhan Marno), already mistreated during years of arranged marriage to a self-righteous misogynist named Ali, finds herself in a no-win crisis when he wants to leave her for a 14-year-old bride. Afraid her two sweet daughters would starve if she grants a divorce to such a brute, the ever-dignified victim literally gets sold down the river on adultery charges. Naturally, in a society where oppression of women is the heartbreaking norm, her scheming husband and his coterie of co-conspirators, including a Pontius Pilate-like mayor and newfound – and politically motivated – holy man, toss around the very unholy accusations.
Just as their female counterparts excel, so do the three men portraying some of the most heavy-handed bad guys on film this year. Navid Negahban (Ali), David Diaan (Mayor Ebrahim), and Ali Pourtash (Mullah) represent the best Middle Eastern actors in the world as assembled by first-time feature director Cyrus Nowrasteh. Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh, a Shaker Heights, OH, native, co-wrote the powerful, if calculating screenplay with her husband.
It’s probably no coincidence that Caviezel, who played the controversial title role in “The Passion of the Christ” a few years ago, makes little more than a cameo as the Iranian-French author (Freidoune Sahebjam) whose book about the incident became banned in his home country.
With its blood flowly freely and a throng of duped persecutors crazed with misplaced fury – with Soraya’s two boys and her father among them – the hard-to-watch stoning scene certainly will bring comparisons to Mel Gibson’s sometimes gory “Passion.”
Regardless, the Nowrastehs don’t bash an Islam religion that, by the way, prohibits stoning anyway. They rather focus on misrepresentations from any so-called “Good Book” and, through powerful performances from their leading ladies, the plight of exploited women everywhere.
Stars: Shohreh Aghdashloo, Mozhan Marno, James Caviezel, Navid Negahban, David Diaan, Ali Pourtash
Director: Cyrus Nowrasteh
Studio/Official Site: http://www.thestoning.com/
[John M. Urbancich has been reviewing movies and writing film features and celebrity profiles at Cleveland’s Sun Newspapers for 25 years. As a longtime member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, his work has been appearing on the Sun News website for more than a decade. John also regularly updates his own site at www.JMuvies.com ]