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MOVIE REVIEW

Stoning of Soraya M.

'Stoning of Soraya M.' doesn't hold back anything

Shohreh Aghdashloo and Mozhan Marnò in “The Stoning of Soraya M.’’ Shohreh Aghdashloo and Mozhan Marnò in “The Stoning of Soraya M.’’ (Roadside Attractions/Mpower Pictures)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / June 26, 2009
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If nothing else, “The Stoning of Soraya M.’’ is truth in titling. Soraya M. gets stoned - and not in a Harold and Kumar way. The projectiles are rocks as opposed to hydroponic grass. And, appropriately enough, this is less a movie than a blunt instrument, a bit of political parable, a bit more outrage, and nary a scrap of real drama or finesse.

“Soraya M.’’ wants to dismay its Western art house audiences with an all-too-real problem faced by women in some Islamic societies: a denial of rights. It’s a BBC report dragged to feature length, complete with the flagrantly styled climactic title event.

Directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh, an American who with his wife, Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh, adapted Freidoune Sahebjam’s novel, the movie gives us the story of a young Iranian woman, played by Mozhan Marnò, accused of adultery by her husband, Ali (Parviz Sayyad). Fans of US made-for-TV movies will recognize Ali as the kind of abusive peacock who once tormented Melissa Gilbert, Markie Post, and Valerie Bertinelli, to name a paltry few.

When he’s not beating the mother of his four kids, he’s cruising around the village in a sports car with another woman in the passenger seat. He would really love to marry the teenage daughter of a doctor in town, and sees a great opportunity to get rid of Soraya after a villager’s wife dies. Ali volunteers his wife to help the widower with his home and children. She reluctantly takes the job. The money is good; maybe she can use it to leave Ali. But from the minute she starts working, Ali manufactures jealous rage at the smiling she does at the widower and at the fact that their hands touch. Before long Ali is talking with the village elders about Soraya. The sentence for her alleged infidelity is death by public stoning. (“When a man accuses his wife,’’ an elder says, “she must prove her innocence. That is the law.’’)

This is serious injustice presented as the stuff of silent movies. The camera can’t get enough of incriminating shots of Soraya talking with her new boss. The plot against her - and it does happen to be a plot - is ludicrous. At no point is the young, very attractive Soraya allowed to say to her accusers, “Look at me, and look at him. Do you honestly think I would risk my life by sleeping with this dimwitted old man? Where are we, in a Woody Allen picture?’’ Clearing her name falls to her aunt (Shohreh Aghdashloo), who whirls around the village prevailing upon the men in charge to rethink their sentence. But, alas, we’re not talking about “The Woman Who Stopped the Stoning of Soraya M.’’

As much as the movie is a call to anger, it’s also a rare showcase for Aghdashloo and her otherworldly croak. Since “The House of Sand and Fog,’’ it’s been a diet of small, thankless parts. (She did spend a memorable season on “24,’’ but still.) “Soraya M.’’ has Aghdashloo advising, pleading, weeping. Yet, much as it delights me to see her in more than 10 percent of a movie, there’s almost no reason for her character to participate in the proceedings except as the grandest emoter in Iran. Aghdashloo tells Soraya’s story to the unwanted Iranian-French journalist who’s just come to town and has a prayer of escaping with his life and tape recorder.

Jim Caviezel wears a beak nose to play the reporter, and while we sit through Soraya’s stoning, we think of the suffering he endured as Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ.’’ The movie is clearly going for the same effect. But the suffering here is more about human tragedy than holy sacrifice. It’s a ghastly, overwrought sequence. The sound of rocks being clapped by little boys and old men becomes a kind of music. The slow-motion is a cheap, hacky flourish. Every man in her life takes a turn pelting Soraya, who, as part of the ritual, is buried alive in the ground up to her chest. Her father, her husband, and the local mullah all get thriller music; piano for the sons, and strings for the rest of town. Men chant “Allah Akbar!’’ while women weep.

Director Nowrasteh seems to think the only way to save lives is to sensationalize death. You could trek to the theater and have this movie whack you upside the head. You could also just mail a check for $10 to the human rights group of your choice.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

THE STONING OF SORAYA M.

Directed by: Cyrus Nowrasteh

Adapted by: Nowrasteh and Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh from Freidoune Sahebjam’s novel

Starring: Shohreh Aghdashloo, Mozhan Marnò, Parviz Sayyad, and Jim Caviezel

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 116 minutes

In Persian, with subtitles

Rated: R (disturbing sequence of cruel and brutal violence, and brief strong language)

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