Friday, March 12, 2010

Released Tuesday on DVD: "The Stoning of Soraya M."

Grade: C

The Stoning of Soraya M. is a slow, inexorable slog to the titular event — a public execution so inconceivably violent and brutal the movie practically dares you not to look away.

Director Cyrus Nowrasteh lingers over the agonizing death of Soraya (Mozhan Marrno), a wife and mother falsely convicted of adultery, with the same excruciating detail Mel Gibson used to depict the suffering of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ. Her arms tied, her body buried to mid-chest and pummeled by rocks thrown by neighbors, friends, her husband, her father, and even her two young sons, Soraya makes death the stuff of extreme horror — the ultimate violation.

And when you think, after 15 torturous minutes of screen time, Soraya has finally expired, a twitch in her eye reveals she’s still alive, barely, and the stoning resumes.

With his adaptation of Freidoune Sahebjam’s nonfiction book, director Nowrasteh wants to conjure revulsion and indignation in the viewer. Revulsion at the barbaric method of execution practiced in some Islamic countries (the real case took place in an Iranian village in 1986) and indignation at the inhuman treatment of women who are so undervalued that they must prove their innocence when their husbands accuse them of adultery, a capital crime.

The beautiful, doomed Soraya is so charged after she refuses to grant a divorce to her boorish husband Ali (Navid Negahban) so he can marry another woman. Soraya fears that without her husband, she won’t be able to provide for their four children. Ali, who like most of the men in the village is depicted in the broad strokes of a cackling James Bond villain, concocts the adultery claim.

The movie, which also stars Shohreh Aghdashloo ("House of Sand and Fog") as Soraya’s increasingly desperate aunt and Jim Caviezel as a French journalist, is so heavy-handed and simplistic that it becomes its worst enemy, undercutting the story’s undeniable power.

Nowrasteh, who also overdoes the flashy editing and manipulative score to the point of irritation, believes the best way to get his message across is to shout it through a megaphone, which may well be the case (the movie was a big audience favorite at the Toronto and Los Angeles film festivals). But the tactic makes you feel bullied instead of moved: At the end, when a photograph of the real Soraya flashes across the screen, your heart breaks for the poor woman, but your ears are relieved that the film has finally stopped shouting at you.

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