Friday, July 17, 2009

Subtle as a Rock: The Stoning of Soraya M.

Based on a best-selling novel about an all too true story, The Stoning of Soraya M. lives up to its title, and down to it. Indeed, the film concludes as promised, with the ghastly and drawn-out execution of a beautiful brown skinned woman who is dressed in white, bound with rope, buried waist-deep in the ground and then reduced to a bloody pulp, one stone at a time. It’s a gruesome experience; the execution “scene” (more like an act) is as visceral as anything of its ilk, trumping the notorious scourging sequence from 2004’s The Passion of the Christ. Like that film, Soraya M. has a performance from Jim Caviezel, a John Debney score and a dusty Middle Eastern setting, but beyond these peripheral accoutrements it has less in common with Mel Gibson’s flawed though arresting martyrdom flick than with something out of the Saw franchise. Director Cyrus Nowrasteh, who adapted the screenplay with his wife Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh, may have avoided crafting a piece of so-called “torture porn,” but this picture has such tunnel vision for its grotesque conclusion that, like the Saw movies, it is reduced to the vulgarity of its horrors.

Soraya M. unfolds with the single-mindedness of a lioness on the hunt. Its aim, best case scenario, is to demonstrate the helplessness of women in radical Islamic societies, and to that end it treats Mozhan Marno’s titular Soraya like a crash test dummy. Every single moment of this film points directly toward its inevitable conclusion – there is no subtlety, no nuance, no depth, no suspense, no character development. Soraya is less a martyr than a prop. She is wronged, then wronged again and then wronged some more, until it becomes clear that her life itself is cruel and unusual punishment for a crime she never committed. By those terms, Soraya’s eventual death sentence might have seemed merciful if not for its brutality, and thus Nowrasteh paints himself into a corner. Soraya’s execution drags out well over 15 minutes – perhaps closer to 25, depending on when you start counting – in order that the true crime of this story proves more unsettling than the victim’s previous punishment. Nowrasteh’s hope, it seems, is that each stone, each scream of anguish and each geyser of blood erupting from Soraya’s forehead will fan the flames of anger in our belly, inspiring us to be crusaders against injustice. Alas, long before the village children scatter across the streets to gather the primitive weaponry that will bring this story toward its prolonged conclusion, we have been battered already.

Soraya M. is more didactic than 2004’s Crash, yet it’s not as artful or even as intellectual. If you find the characters from Paul Haggis’ controversial Best Picture winner to be too archetypal, wait until you get a load of this crew. Soraya, conveniently the most beautiful person on screen, is the model of dignity and purity; not just innocent, but almost saintly. Her husband, Ali (Navid Negahban), who hatches a plot that will lead to a wrongful (and fatal) adultery charge, is so cartoonishly sinister that he should have traded in his beard in favor of Snidely Whiplash’s mustache. Opposed to him is Soraya’s aunt, Zahara, who spends the entire movie defiantly speaking the truth to deaf ears, grandstanding with feminist spunk and righteousness until she becomes the Iranian version of Dixie Carter’s character on Designing Women. Zahara is played by Shohreh Aghdashloo, who picked up an Academy Award nomination for 2003’s House of Sand and Fog, and here she seems intent on making every scene, nay, every gesture (from a minor adjustment of her headscarf to a melodramatic and ill-advised Scarlett O’Hara pledge to the heavens) worthy of insertion into an Oscar night clip reel. It’s exhausting.

Yet even more disturbing than these main characters are the minor ones. Beyond Caviezel, as journalist Freidoune Sahebjam, who appears in unnecessary bookend scenes, there are three supporting players of note: Ali Pourtash plays the devious town mullah, a wolf in noble clothing, who helps Ali carry out his plot; Parviz Sayyad is the sad and dimwitted Hashem, who gets coerced into accusing Soraya of adultery; and David Diaan is Ebrahim, the supposedly thoughtful town councilman who asks God to send him a sign if Soraya’s death sentence is unjust and then thinks nothing of it when – just before the first stone is thrown – a circus troupe rolls into the stoning square. Seriously. These three men, along with Negahban’s Ali, make up the lynch mob that executes Soraya without hesitation while the rest of the town gathers round, pumps their fists in the air and chants “Allahu Akbar!” To take the film at face value is to assume that the Muslim world is filled with criminals, imbeciles and bloodthirsty monsters, with a few innocent women tossed in.

Of course, we shouldn’t take such films at face value, but that’s the trouble with Soraya M. It assumes its audience is knowledgeable enough to put these depictions of Islamic extremism into context (a risky assumption in this country) while at the same time it highlights every injustice suffered by Soraya in all caps, as if its audience is ignorant or slow. When Soraya is accused of adultery, for example, Ebrahim explains that a man doesn’t need to provide evidence to support his case whereas a woman bears the burden of proof if accusing a man of the same crime. Ostensibly, Ebrahim is educating Soraya about her rights, but he might as well break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience; the Nowrastehs’ intent is that transparent. Thus, the film lets down both the educated and the uninformed. The educated get talked down to. The uninformed leave believing that this episode from 1986 reflects the entire Islamic world today. Everybody loses. If the purpose of this film was to alert the Western world to the brutality of Islamic extremism, they could have stopped at the title.


Hokahey said...

Well written - and I agree with your observations. I expected a lot more from this film. But you're right - there's nothing subtle about it. Good of you to point out the noteworthy supporting performances. Considering the recent films set in Iraq, depictions of life and culture in the Middle East in American movies have been problematic. Too bad.

Fox said...

Every single moment of this film points directly toward its inevitable conclusion – there is no subtlety, no nuance, no depth, no suspense, no character development. Soraya is less a martyr than a prop....

You know, from seeing the trailer for this film this weekend, I was exactly worried about what you said above.

The trailer itself even seems to conceal something until you see the guys digging the hole at the end. Only then - and as you said, people may not know what that hole represents - do we get a hint at what's to come, and from what you describe it's a very soft hint to what actually happens.

A great movie can be made out of this topic, but you convincingly make it sound like this isn't the one.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comments, guys.

Hokahey: Yeah, too bad. And though the supporting performances weren't terrible, the characters sure left a lot to be desired.

Fox: A great movie could be made out of this topic. One of the oddities for me is that they'd stick to this story from 1986. Why? The film hints that this stuff still goes on (and we know from the news that it does), so why not make it modern? The film kind of plays it both ways: by going back to '86, it suggests Soraya's story is special; on the other hand it wants to give the impression that she is a symbol for too numerous similar atrocities. So which is it?

I'm a little bit curious to read the novel upon which the film is based because I'm guessing it lives in the moment during Soraya's life. The film sure seemed to be in a hurry to put her in that hole. Everything before the execution is a tired exercise to get us there.

And once we're there, oh, how they milk it ...

Daniel Getahun said...

Excellent review of a movie that I skipped mostly for the suspicions that you set out to prove here. Originally I thought this would be right up my alley, but when I learned how long and graphic the stoning scene was, and the fact that it was not well set up, I just let it come and go.

More than anything I think I would be bothered by the cultural gap you mention. By making the (in my opinion, wrong) assumption that Americans understand the nuances of Islam and Middle Eastern culture, it sounds to me like this movie ends up simply furthering the stereotypes they already have by going so over the top with the bloodlust. I think it ends up bad for everybody.

Jason Bellamy said...

"I think it ends up bad for everybody."

Daniel: That's exactly right. Thanks for the comments.