With most of its 114-minute runtime spent stoking anxious anticipation for its title’s promised bloody denouement, The Stoning of Soraya M. functions as a message-movie slasher film or, rather, a hot-button Passion of the Christ, replete with the participation of that film’s Jesus himself, Jim Caviezel. However, whereas Passion equated its prolonged climax of medieval capital punishment with spirituality, Cyrus Nowrasteh’s film posits its execution as a decidedly moral issue, with the stoning of wife and mother Soraya (Mozhan Marnò) a case study in the abhorrent misogyny of Sharia law.
Adapted from French reporter Freidoune Sahebjam’s 1994 “based on a true story” book, Stoning opens with Sahebjam (Caviezel) suffering a car breakdown in a remote Iranian village shortly after the ’79 revolution. There, he hears from local “crazy” woman Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo) about the events that led to the prior day’s murder, which was caused by her niece Soraya’s refusal to agree to a divorce from wicked husband Ali (Navid Negahban) that would have left her and her two daughters penniless. Forced by the town’s bigwigs to work for a newly widowed man and his mentally handicapped son, Soraya is subsequently framed for adultery by Ali—a leather-jacketed, sports car-racing cartoon monster—so that she’ll be publicly killed and he can get on with marrying a 14-year-old girl still wearing braces. Everywhere Soraya and Aunt Zahra look, they’re reminded of females’ societal powerlessness, and so too are we, as director Nowrasteh doesn’t let a scene go by without having a character bluntly state something like “This is a man’s world!”
Though it would be hard to overstate the contemptible treatment granted women in much of the Muslim world, the film’s contentions are articulated through leaden scripting and manipulative plotting that turn the proceedings unseemly. Given the human-rights violations in question, exploiting this tale in order to elicit outrage and action is somewhat understandable. Yet it’s an endeavor that requires a defter hand than that shown by Nowrasteh, who—aside from a nicely surrealistic aside involving a travelling carnival troupe—resorts to such overblown histrionics (wailing music, kneeling characters beseeching the heavens, Saturday Morning serial-evil villains, an embarrassing “triumphant” coda) that Stoning comes off as a case of right argument, wrong approach.