A remote rural community; a beautiful, innocent woman betrayed by her husband, falsely accused of immorality and condemned to horrible death by a cruel male power structure that hides behind religion; her only ally a courageous, dignified older woman who, when she cannot stop the tragedy, bravely determines to tell the world.
If you're an entertainment maven in Los Angeles or New York, what's not to love? Except that it's not set in Puritan New England or contemporary Texas. And the dignified aunt isn't played by Susan Sarandon. The dialogue is mostly in Farsi, so it lacks the southern drawl that helps liberals identify the bad guys.
"The Stoning of Soraya M." is set in an Iranian village in 1986. The woman is the victim of Sharia law. It addresses misogyny, injustice, human rights abuses and narrow religiosity. It is anti-violence and deeply pro-life, in the broadest sense of the term. In short, as The Weekly Standards Stephen F. Hayes wrote, "it is an important film," and it should have received attention from the people who like to think of films as important. But the people who control Hollywood's most prestigious awards ignored it.
"Soraya M." ran afoul of some elite sensibilities. It used, in the words of a human rights activist, "crude story-telling" to argue that multiculturalism doesn't excuse barbarism and justice is not just a Western value artificially imposed on other societies. New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden condemned the film's stark delineation of good and evil and called its depiction of the stoning "lurid torure porn."
Further, the cast includes Jim Caviezel, who played Christ in "The Passion of the Christ," It was produced by Stephen McEveety ("The Passion of the Christ," "An American Carol," "We Were Soldiers" and "Braveheart"), and was written and directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh, who also wrote "The Path to 9-11." None of those works are likely to be on a liberal "must-watch list," and Holden went so far as to conclude his review of "Soraya M." saying, "As ‘The Passion of the Christ' showed, the stimulation of blood lust in the guise of moral righteousness has its appeal."
There's always a place in the liberal establishment for the latest in perversion and nihilistic sadism (as The Weekly Standard's Hayes pointed out, Holden "once lauded Quentin Tarantino's blood-soaked Reservoir Dogs as a ‘critic's choice.'" But a good many of its denizens are uncomfortable celebrating artistic achievement that raised unfashionable moral issues.
One Tough Flick
"The Stoning of Soraya M." is based on a true story. The title tells viewers a lot about the movie, but not nearly everything.
The movie opens when a French reporter's (Caviezel) car breaks down outside a remote Iranian village. As he waits for the car to be fixed, a local woman named Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo) demands a secret meeting with him, and tells him that her niece was stoned in the village yesterday. The reporter turns on his tape recorder, and the story begins.
Soraya (Mozhan Marnò) was a wife and mother of four living in a remote Iranian village. Her husband Ali (Navid Negahban), an abusive tyrant who turned her two sons against their mother, demanded a divorce so that he could marry a 14-year-old girl. Soraya refused because divorce would leave her and her two young daughters destitute.
When Soraya began working in domestic service for a local widower and his young son, Ali saw his chance and falsely accused her of adultery with the man. With the help of the local mullah, he threatened the reluctant widower into perjuring himself and testifying against Soraya. When she adamantly denied the allegations, the mullah told her that, unlike a man in the same situation, she would have to prove herself innocent. Despite the desperate efforts of Zahra, Soraya was convicted in Sharia court and condemned to death by stoning. She was buried to her waist in the middle of the village and every male resident - including her father and her two sons - participated.
Her story told, Zahra helps the reporter smuggle the tape out of the village. He drives away to write the book on which the film is based. Zahra is left to an uncertain fate in a hostile community.
"Soraya M.," available on DVD and Blu-ray this month, premiered in limited release in the United States last June. Prior to that, it was screened for enthusiastic audiences at several international film festivals.
The film won the "Justice" award from the Berlin Film Festival's "Cinema for Peace Awards" and earned runner-up to "Slumdog Millionaire" as the Audience Favorite at the Toronto Film Festival. It also won The Audience Choice Award at The Los Angeles Film Festival and garnered The Critics Choice Award from The Broadcast Critics Film Association.
"Soraya M." also won critical applause in many quarters. The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern praised "Soraya," and found that it "functions as a parable of power abused by the multitude" and shows that "it takes a village to turn craven stupidity into fascist bestiality."
USA Today's Claudia Puig noted the timely nature of the film's release, at the peak of protests in Iran in June 2009 and called the film "emotionally explosive." Puig continued, "It also is profoundly compelling in its focus on Zahra's courageous stance and her hope that by disseminating Soraya's tragic story, such despicable practices can be stopped."
Peter Brunette of The Hollywood Reporter encouraged "adventurous indie distributors" to "give this film a look" after he screened it at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival. "It would also be a natural for film festivals around the world and should do extremely well in the ancillary market, especially with sales to colleges," he hypothesized.
"It's a powerful, shocking piece," he concluded. "And the denunciation of a system in which an accused woman has to prove her own innocence (while in the case of a man, his guilt has to be proven by others), is strong and clear and unforgettable."
Shut Out of Tinseltown
With so much critical and audience acclaim, when awards season rolled around in March, "Soraya M." should have been a lock for a nomination or two. Because it wasn't made in Iran (but in an undisclosed location for fear of interference or even violence), the movie wasn't eligible under academy rules for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. But surely Shohreh Aghdashloo, as Zahra, might get a nod for Best Actress from the Academy? Nope.
What really puzzled director Cyrus Nowrasteh was the slight from the Independent Spirit Awards (which occur right before the Oscars in L.A.). "Soraya M." is as independent as they come - exactly the kind of film that they are intended to celebrate. Yet, "we were shut out completely," Nowrasteh told the Culture and Media Institute. "I don't know why."
It can't be that the subject matter was too difficult, since "Precious," an unflinching look at child sex abuse and incest, swept the awards. And it can't be that "Soraya M." didn't have the independent bona-fides. It was in limited distribution by Lions Gate and Caviezel was the only actor of note to appear.
In addition to directing "Soraya M.," Nowrasteh wrote the screenplay with his wife, Betsey Giffen Nowrasteh. He's a veteran Hollywood writer, who wrote the 2006 miniseries "The Path to 9-11."
"Some people have responded to it with a multicultural view," Nowrasteh told CMI. "They say we can't judge other cultures."
The multicultural sense informed a review in which the New York Times's Stephen Holden savaged the film. The movie, he said, "thoroughly blurs the line between high-minded outrage and lurid torture-porn," with "sickeningly exploitative touches." Holden compared the graphic detail of the stoning scene in "Soraya M." to "The Passion of the Christ" - not a flattering comparison around the precincts of the New York Times. (The presence of Caviezel - Christ in Mel Gibson's 2004 "Passion" - as the French reporter does invite the association.)
Lest you think Holden just finds blood, gore and bleak depictions of violence too much for his constitution, his reviews and prove he isn't that delicate. Holden described the "two most notorious scenes" in the 2002 South Korean film "The Isle," as "gory suicidal gestures involving fishhooks inserted into orifices," yet that wasn't enough for him to write off the film. He claimed the "symbolism" in the film "works on several levels" including the erotic, aesthetic, social, and philosophical.
Of "Teeth," in which the movie's protagonist has a toothed vagina, Holden said, "Teenage horror-movie spoof, John Waters parody, No Nukes protest movie: Mitchell Lichtenstein's clever, crude comedy, Teeth is all these and more."
Holden noted a "horrifying" rape scene in "Monster," the biopic about serial killer Aileen Wuornos, but that wasn't his biggest complaint about the film. "The movie's biggest disappointment is the vague, unfocused performance of Ms. Ricci, an actress known for taking risky, unsympathetic roles. Here she seems somewhat intimidated by her character."
Eli Roth's "Cabin Fever" a gore-fest that includes a scene in which a female character shaves the skin off her own legs due after contracting a flesh-eating disease, received praise from Holden. "Eli Roth...has cooked up a tempting teens-in-the-woods bloodbath that suggests a ‘Blair Witch Project' with the blanks filled in, the camera stabilized and the story embellished with an evocative score ... whose shivery texture is spiced with the sounds of buzzing flies." Holden claimed that the characters' "desperate, each-man-for-himself behavior becomes a scary microcosm of mass hysteria and social chaos in the face of catastrophe."
So it's not that Holden has a real aversion to violence. No, here's what Holden really seemed not to like:
"Almost everything is either-or. Soraya is a beautiful martyred innocent and Zahra a stormy feminist prophet," Holden wrote. "With the exception of the mayor (David Diaan), who has qualms about the execution, and Mr. Caviezel's reporter, who appears only briefly at the beginning and end of the movie, the men are fiendishly villainous."
So what bothered the reviewer were the film's use of contrasts - and through them its assertion that good and evil exist and people outside the New York Times are sometimes capable of recognizing the difference between the two.
Nowrasteh wasn't surprised. "You're never going to please people like that. The New York Times hated ‘The Path to 9-11.' [‘Soraya M.' Producer] Steve McEveety worked on ‘The Passion of the Christ.' They hated that. So I didn't expect them to like it."
Worse than a liberal movie reviewer, though, was the reaction from a "human rights activist." Elise Auerbach, an Iran specialist for Amnesty International USA, wrote, "An accurate and thoughtful film about executions in Iran would be welcome, but we will still have to wait, as the Stoning of Soraya M is not it."
Auerbach's review in the Huffington Post is tour-de-force in blinkered liberal moral equivalency, taking umbrage on behalf of Iranian society at what she imagines to be the film's suggestion that that "those on the outside (the west?) can rescue the benighted Iranian people from their barbaric practices."
The review underscores the fundamental unseriousness of Amnesty International, which has in recent years thundered against alleged abuses in Western democracies while shrugging at true, systematic evil elsewhere. The death penalty in Texas is somehow more egregious than it is in Iran.
Auerbach wrote, "More importantly, aside from numerous inaccuracies and implausibilities, the climax of the film - a bloody and prolonged stoning scene with villagers mercilessly pelting the victim - is so sensationalized that the audience response is likely to be disgust and revulsion at Iranians themselves, who are portrayed as primitive and blood-thirsty savages."
In case Nowrasteh's Iranian-American identity weren't enough to illustrate the absurdity of that assertion, CMI spoke with an Iranian expatriate with close ties inside Iran who keeps an eye on Iranian society. Was "Soraya M." honest and believable?
"Yes," he said, still clearly shaken from his viewing. "It's believable. In fact, it still happens. Not often, but out in the remote parts of the country, it happens."
The reason, he explained, is that since Iran's Islamic revolution, justice in remote areas may depend on differing interpretations of Sharia. "Some interpret it more liberally, but some - their ideas were set 1,400 years ago."
Asked if stoning happened under the Shah, he shook his head. "Never. The Shah's government was corrupt, but there was a system of laws."
Not so today, and the current regime likes it that way. Nowrasteh filmed "Soraya M." at an undisclosed location outside Iran for fear of interference or reprisals. The Iranian government has condemned and banned it. But Nowrasteh estimates that there may be "as many as 20,000 pirated DVDs on the ground in Iran. That's very gratifying" To be caught with it, he said, can mean death.
"The act of watching the movie is an act of defiance inside Iran. And to see this film is to understand some of what's going on over there."