A film based on a real stoning incident in rural Iran was always going to be a harrowing watch – it is. Having said that it’s also incredibly life affirming, doesn’t link the barbaric killing to Islam, and is terrifically well acted. Co-writer/director Cyrus Nowrasteh may sadly not have been able to make the screening at Amnesty International’s UK headquarters, but he’s delivered a film which is interesting, suspenseful, deeply sad and often quite moving. I expected a film shot almost entirely in Farsi (with subtitles) to be quite heavy going, but nothing could have been further from the truth. It’s a shame it hasn’t been more widely available – I only knew about it through Amnesty!
Soraya Manutchehri was stoned to death in 1986 (when the film is set), and is played with considerable grace and intelligence by Mozhan Marnò. Soraya was locked in a loveless marriage to the violent mysoginist Ghorban-Ali. She refused to grant him a divorce so that he could’legitimately’ play with prostitutes and marry his girlfriend – the price she paid was betrayal by her family and community and a violent murder. ‘The Stoning of Soraya M’ is a dramatised account of French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam’s (played in the film by Jim Caviezel) real life encounter with this community and the murder’s aftermath, and it’s a searing indictment of both Sharia Law and the absence of meaningful rights for women in the Islamic Republic. Soraya would have had to prove her husband’s guilt, had she accused him of adultery – she on the other hand had to prove her innocence when Ghorban-Ali accused her. And he did, prefering to abuse Sharia Law as a means of getting out of his marriage, rather than repay his wife her dowry. In a town run by criminals and thugs, it turned out almost everyone could be turned by invoking God.
It’s a poignant watch, considering the role women are playing in the events following the fraudulent presidential election in Iran, and Nowastreh doesn’t pull any punches. You are shown Soraya’s murder in graphic detail – its sheer barbarity and pointlessness. When she and her aunt (& protector) Zahra (played with immense charisma by Shohreh Aghdashloo) protest the impending murder, all they hear is ‘God is great!’ When unquestioning belief trumps rationalism, when mob rule is state sanctioned, it’s clear that anything is possible. The stoning of women is a practice which persists to this day in the Islamic world, and is one of many abuses of women which urgently need to be confronted. You have to hope that the protesters in Iran, people such as Zahra, find a way through the system which by its nature determines women to be second class citizens, and gives them the equality they are self-evidently entitled to.