Shohreh Aghdashloo, in 'The Stoning of Soraya M.'

Dir. Cyrus Nowrasteh
(2009, R, 114 min)

The Stoning of Soraya M. deals with worthy subject matter but is unworthy in its making. I don’t object to the violence, per se, but to the cartoonish simple-mindedness of the storytelling. The film is ostensibly feminist, telling the tragic story of an innocent Iranian woman falsely accused of adultery and stoned to death, and is adapted from a real-life account written by French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam in 1994, but there’s an insidious vein of anti-Islamic sentiment coursing through it that left a bitter taste in my mouth. Look at those barbaric Muslims! The men are cowardly murderers and whore-mongers, the women are gossips, and everyone praises Allah while the title character is stoned to death with extravagant directorial panache!

I won’t try to ascribe motives to co-writer/director Cyrus Nowrasteh, of Iranian descent but American born and raised. I suspect, or at least hope, that he meant well in telling this story, that he intended to shine a light on the evils of fundamentalism. In his attempt he proves to be an effective visual filmmaker, but he lacks the subtlety and grace needed to shape the characters and themes. Instead he creates offensive, one-dimensional caricatures. Ali (Navid Negahban), a vulgar mustache-twirler of a villain, is married to Soraya (Mozhan Marnò), but wants to divorce her so he can marry a 14-year-old girl. He enlists the help of the local Mullah (Ali Pourtash), an even more hatefully written character, who isn’t really a Mullah at all but plays one to get by. Their scenes are all written as object lessons in the evils of this culture. Men are in charge, Ali teaches his eagerly receptive sons, now clean up this mess, you worthless bitch — muah-ha-ha-ha!

We know all too well that such evil exists in this culture, and a film about an incident of this nature will by necessity involve extreme examples, but Nowrasteh regards them with a smug, sneering superiority that borders on racist. This feels not like a personal story of life amidst tyranny, like the great film Persepolis. It plays like a scolding diatribe against an alien society. Why develop characters when exploiting cultural stereotypes will do?

“Now the world will know!” yells Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo) after telling Soraya’s story to Sahebjam (Jim Caviezel), the camera rising triumphantly overhead in a ham-handed melodramatic flourish — the film congratulating itself for its virtue. Nowrasteh previously did good work as a writer on the TNT miniseries Into the West but here demonstrates the blunt-force sensationalism of a propagandist. A quick search of his name shows that he previously wrote the controversial telefilm The Path to 9/11, widely criticized for its historical inaccuracies. He considers himself libertarian and commented, “You’re safer being a child molester [than right-wing] in some circles in Hollywood,” in a 2007 article about Hollywood conservatives for Politico. That’s the kind of overstatement you’d expect from the director of The Stoning of Soraya M.