The pivotal scene in director Cyrus Nowrasteh’s new film unfolds slowly, letting the audience absorb every soul-crushing second.
First, a hole is dug in the ground. Then, the accused adulterer is lowered into the empty space and workers bury her up to her waist in dirt.
Then, the woman’s neighbors, young and old — as well as her immediate family — start collecting stones to throw at her until she dies.
The Stoning of Soraya M. is unlike any film we’ve seen before. It’s an unflinching glimpse at the very worst side of Iranian culture, an indictment of a barbaric ritual defended and embraced by an entire village.
And it’s based on a real-life incident.
Nowrasteh, best known for writing the ABC miniseries The Path to 9/11, gives away the story in the film’s title. That he keeps the audience engaged up until the final scene is a testament to his measured approach.
In clumsier hands, like Oliver Stone circa 2009, Soraya M. would have played out with thunder, brimstone, and more than a few overt political messages.
Nowrasteh — who also co-wrote the film with his wife, screenwriter Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh — tackles the material in a straightforward fashion. The only razzle dazzle on display is the powerhouse performance by House of Sand and Fog actress Shohreh Aghdashloo as the doomed woman’s confidante.
Aghdashloo plays Zahra, an Iranian woman who corners a journalist (Jim Caviezel) when his car breaks down in her dusty village. She insists he listen to the story she must tell an outsider. Their discussion serves as the film’s perfunctory framing device.
Soraya (Mozhan Marnò) is married to Ali (Navid Negahban), a cruel partner with a wandering eye. Local customs won’t allow him to follow said eye, so he conjures up an adultery charge against Soraya in the hopes the scandal will set him free. The male dominated legal system — aided and abetted by Sharia law, which demands a public execution of the guilty — does the rest.