French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam is stranded in a remote Iranian village. All he wants is to have his car's radiator repaired as quickly as possible and be left alone in the meantime. But local woman Zahra will not accept his refusal to listen to her when she approaches him on the street. Eventually she convinces him to record her anguished tale of what the village "devils" did to her niece, Soraya. Women's voices aren't heard in Iran, she says, so she begs Sahebjam to take hers to the rest of the world. His report is their only hope for justice.
He turns on his tape recorder, and as he listens, we see Soraya's husband, Ali, threaten her, beat her and ultimately orchestrate her public death. Tired of her after four children and 20 years of marriage, Ali wants to wed the 14-year-old daughter of a rich man from a bigger city nearby. He can't afford two wives, so he demands a divorce. For the sake of her daughters, Soraya refuses.
Once Ali sees that his inconvenient wife won't cooperate, he sets out to trap her in a vicious scheme: forcing her to work for a widower neighbor, Hashem, then coercing "witnesses," including Hashem himself, to claim they'd seen Soraya behaving adulterously with him. Their evidence? She'd smiled at Hashem and their hands made contact when she handed him a sewing machine. This lie he mixes in for good measure: Soraya napped in Hashem's bed while he was away at work.
Under the village's interpretation of Islamic Sharia law, this flimsy concoction of "evidence" means Soraya must be stoned to death.
The Stoning of Soraya M. is based on real-life journalist Sahebjam's internationally best-selling nonfiction book. He did share Zahra's tale of mob rule and brutality against women with the world.
Now moviegoers are left to grapple with it, too.
Soraya is an honorable woman who loves her children and treats others with respect. Even under duress, she remains strong to face her demise with dignity. She bravely speaks out against Ali's behavior and the treatment that women endure in her part of the world.
Onscreen, as in real life, it all comes back to a man's character. Ali's character is one of greed, lust and obscene selfishness. The town's mullah's character is one of wonton self-preservation, readily cowering as Ali blackmails him into the conspiracy. The mayor, meanwhile, is content to let the passions of others drive him to and fro. Put bluntly, his character is one of spinelessness, causing him to turn a blind eye to the injustices he suspects but does not investigate.
Hashem's betrayal of Soraya reveals not so much his simpleness, but rather his fear. He wants to be kind and gentle to Soraya while rolling over for the powerful men who glare at him and demand that he lie. When called upon to cast one of the first stones, he cannot, but the damage is already done.
From all of these men, we can pick out profound life lessons. But from Hashem, we can perhaps learn the most important one: We are not innocent of wrongdoing just because we do not personally fire the gun, launch the missile, land the blow or throw the stone. Our words or our silence can also condemn us when evil is not forthrightly resisted.
Zahra, a gracious woman who regards others with compassion and pleads for them to turn from their wickedness, cares for Soraya and her orphaned children. She pleads with the mullah that he allow her to be killed in Soraya's place. She puts her body between the stones and Soraya and, later, between the journalist and a gunman. She tenderly buries what is left of Soraya's remains.
Sahebjam risks his life to smuggle the cassette tape holding Zahra's story out of the country.
The Muslim townsmen invoke God's law as the reason they must murder Soraya. "With each stone that you throw, your honor will return," the mullah tells them. Ebriham, the mayor, is shown kneeling in prayer as he asks God for discernment in Soraya's "case."
Zahra resists them in God's name, too, crying, "The God that I love is great." She also credits Allah with being merciful. She accuses the mullah of disgracing the Quran. And she reassures Soraya that God and paradise await her.
It is said that God is watching, and that the devil visited the town during the stoning.
In a vision-like cutaway from her death, Soraya is shown, healthy and beautiful, walking in a field with her daughters. (It's either a reference to the afterlife or a flashback to happier days.) A flock of birds, once referred to as angels by one of Soraya's daughters, take flight as if to symbolize a soul's journey to freedom.
Ali accuses Soraya of denying him sexually. (Under Sharia law, a woman is expected to have sex with her husband whenever he demands it.) The mullah propositions Soraya, telling her he will care for her daughters after her divorce if she becomes his "temporary wife," or "holy whore." Ali expresses his lust for the 14-year-old young girl. A reference to prostitutes is made.
The stoning is intentionally made to be unbearable to watch—portraying an intolerable practice in extended and graphic, wretch-inducing shots. With each stone that hits her, Soraya's face or head is pierced, torn and bloodied. Agonizingly, she is buried in the ground from the waist down with her hands bound, so the rocks' force often causes her to pitch backward to the point you think her back will break.
The scene extends interminably as the camera catches every gory detail of her torture. And when her accusers make especially forceful hits, they cheer. Her own father turns against her, casting the first stone and calling her filthy names. Her young sons also partake in the brutality as Ali encourages them. The rest of the village males, including boys, continue the barbarism until Soraya is motionless, bloodied beyond recognition. And then Ali cries for even more stones to be heaved upon her. Rocks and her blood surround her lifeless body in a wide, spattered circle.
You can imagine from this description, nauseating even to read, that you don't merely watch the violence in The Stoning of Soraya M., you experience it. Up close and personally.
Earlier, Ali beats his wife in public and in their home, slapping her, kicking her and humiliating her—sometimes in front of their children. "This is a man's world," he boasts to his sons. "Never forget that, boys." And he works hard to turn them against their mother.
In a shockingly bold move, Zahra slaps Ebriham, trying to knock some sense into him.
Men carry or fire guns. Sahebjam's car is pelted with stones as he flees the village.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Defying a national ban on women smoking cigarettes, Zahra lights one up in front of the journalist.
I have lived or traveled in countries where men view women as inferior property—and I've felt men's disdain burn into me, feeling powerless in its wake. As one of the women in The Stoning of Soraya M. knowingly says of such cultures, "All women are guilty. All men are innocent." This attitude is a powerful and extensive force that many Westerners have never felt or seen. And whenever I have witnessed or experienced it—albeit in significantly gentler ways than Soraya's neighbors have—I am always grateful for Paul's depiction of marriage in Ephesians 5. How sharply a godly husband's treatment of his wife contrasts with Sharia law and other abusive religious structures. And how esteemed and protected women are in a biblical worldview.
After he'd read the book on which The Stoning of Soraya M. is based, director Cyrus Nowrasteh said, "I thought, if this is really happening all over the world, someone needs to shine a light on it. The world has to become more aware of it."
He's tried hard to make this awareness happen with an expressive message of justice and equality for women. He concludes the film with this note: "Despite official denials, untold numbers of people, mostly women, continue to be put to death by stoning in many countries around the world." And on the movie's official website, readers are invited to add their names to a petition destined for the desk of the United Nations' general secretary and the United States' secretary of state.
It's as Zahra triumphantly shouts at her town's leaders when she makes good on her promise to not let Soraya die unnoticed, "Wasn't our village going to be an example for the rest of the country? Now the whole world will know."
The picture's far-reaching effectiveness in helping to eradicate the horror of stoning remains to be seen, of course. Its status as an art film created by part of the team that made The Passion of the Christ won't earn it a wide release in theaters. And never before has any movie been solely responsible for galvanizing the world into significant action on such serious issues. But it does have the power to help shape individuals' attitudes. The desperation and despair it delivers are fiercely palpable. So much so that the only response one can muster after seeing it is regret, rage and a resolve to try to make the world a better place for everyone, not just yourself.
Part of that power comes from the way this film is constructed. The intimately vicious depictions of Soraya's death will likely remain in viewers minds for the rest of their lives. But could the same impact have been engineered without them? I don't know. But I would hope so, and I question whether such explicit brutality has to be given such prominent screen time in order for these kinds of stories to carry weight. And in doing so I also mourn an American culture that just might be so desensitized to onscreen violence that these kinds of extremes are needed to make moviegoers sit up and take notice.