Not every film is meant to pull on one’s heart strings in a positive way. Sometimes, a cinematic work can yank hard on conscience and make us question our assumptions about humanity. I recall feeling this way after seeing “A Clockwork Orange” for the first time: I drew unpleasant comparisons between Kubrick’s dystopian vision and the modern world. “Schindler’s List” captured the tension and psychosis associated with living in Nazi-occupied Europe. However, I suggest these films let the viewer off relatively lightly compared to “The Stoning of Soraya M” starring Shoreh Agdashloo and Jim Caviezel.
The film is based on a book by the French / Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam; we are introduced to his character, as played by Jim Caviezel, as he is driving through the hot, dusty Iranian landscape on his way to the border. Sahebjam’s use of an old analogue cassette recorder suggests it is set not long after the Islamic Revolution has taken place. Unfortunately, he is driving an old Lada Riva, which breaks down. Sahebjam is then forced to seek repairs in a small town called Kuhpayeh; he is subsequently approached by a woman named Zahra (Shoreh Agdashloo), who risks the wrath of the mayor and the local mullah to speak to him. After some subterfuge, they meet in her courtyard. He pulls out his tape recorder, and she relates the story of her niece, Soraya Manutchehri (Mozhan Marnò).
Let’s be clear: if even a fraction of this tale is true, and it is, Iran is murderously misogynistic in a number of respects. Soraya was married to a man named Ali (played with Satanic menace by Navid Negahban), who regularly beats her (we see bruises on her body); despite having complete control of Soraya, he wishes to divorce her so he can marry a 14 year old girl without the burden of supporting his first family. In the film, Soraya and Ali are portrayed as having four children, two boys and two girls: in reality, they had seven. The film also explains that Ali’s future bride came to him as a result of a corrupt bargain: the 14 year old’s father is a prisoner, Ali is a prison guard, if he arranges a release, he gets the daughter in trade.
Soraya, fearful that her female children will starve, refuses to make matters easy for Ali. Ali’s main issue is that he doesn’t want to part with any more money; however, he is shown to be relatively well off, e.g., he is the only man in the village who apparently owns a car. Ali tries a number of schemes, including one involving the local mullah, who offers to take Soraya on as his “temporary wife”, which is more or less equivalent to a prostitute or concubine. Eventually, she is offered respectable domestic employment by an illiterate mechanic named Hashem; Hashem is a lonely man, his wife having recently died and left a mentally handicapped son to his care. The deal seems a fair arrangement given the circumstances: Soraya hopes to earn and save enough so that she can grant the divorce without too much difficulty.
Ali, however, refuses to wait. Upon seeing Soraya’s hand briefly touch Hashem’s as she hands over a sewing machine, he has an idea on how to be rid of her. He and the local mullah fabricate evidence and spread malicious gossip in order to accuse Soraya of adultery: though the grounds for “adultery” in post-Revolutionary Iran are rather peculiar to Western sensibilities. It would seem that taking a nap at another man’s house is sufficient. Hashem is threatened: if he doesn’t go along with the plot, he will possibly be killed and his son will be sent off to a mental hospital. He acquiesces; from this moment, Soraya’s fate is sealed. As is explained, in Iran, a woman has to prove her innocence if accused by a man, and prove a man’s guilt if she wishes to accuse. Men are presumed innocent. I found myself wanting to shout at the television, “How is she supposed to prove a negative?” Logic, however, doesn’t matter. Nor does family: Soraya’s father is one of those who vote to convict. An hour after the verdict is delivered, she is executed.
My other half couldn’t bear to watch the stoning scene. It’s not an experience I care to repeat; the film was produced by the makers of “The Passion of the Christ”, and it shares that film’s unrelenting and gruesome realism. We are introduced to jeering crowds pumped up by religious fervour: this is a diabolically ugly sight. We see the town gossip leap for joy and smile after the first stone hits: nausea twists in the viewer’s stomach, anger rises. Soraya’s father uses the foulest language to denounce her: genuine horror results. We are shown the effect on the human body of being pelted by endless barrages of stones: blood is spattered on the dry ground, the broken remains are left to rot. Some dignity is preserved by two travelling performers who cover Soraya’s body with a green velvet cape.
Zahra reminds us that it’s not permitted for Iranian women who have been executed for adultery to be buried in consecrated ground: rather, their bodies are left for wild animals to consume. Soraya’s remains were deposited by a river; what the animals did not take, her aunt covers over and pushes into the soft earth. There is some liberation in knowing that thanks to the journalist, the story does not die with her; nevertheless, any sensitive viewer will be left bereft by the revelations in this film.
It’s one thing to know facts at a distance: we know that the lot of women in modern Iran is mainly an unhappy one. We know that stoning of women happens not just in Iran but also in Sudan, Pakistan, Somalia and other havens of Islamic fundamentalism. To have that reality pushed in one’s face draws the horror all too close. I comforted myself and my other half that this situation is so unbearable that it has to end: I spoke about the Green Revolution and the opportunities for change brought about by the Iranian government’s economic mismanagement and international sanctions. She took a much more dim view: in her words, one half of society has been set against another, in an arrangement which benefits and suits men. Why should they give up their privileges, what will compel them? I didn’t have a good answer. The sheer outrage of events like Soraya M’s trial and execution leave one desperate for a solution: it would have been comforting to have the film interrupted by UN peacekeepers parachuted in to stop the madness. However, as we’ve discovered in Iraq and Afghanistan, war tends to exacerbate brutality, not remedy it. We can hope that Iran’s society “evolves”, but contrary to what many Westerners believe, history is not necessarily progressing along a steady, upward arc. It falls back, it retreats, it sinks into the mire. This is certainly true in Iran: prior to the 1979 Revolution, women theoretically had equal rights, Western liberal education was encouraged and the chador was banned. Iran even fails in comparison to how Mohammed himself viewed women: for example, without the encouragement of his wife Khadija, it is unlikely Islam would have gotten off the ground. The best motto for Iran may lay in a statement once attributed to a Russian poet: “Oh let us return to the past, and what progress there will be!”
Until such time as ages past are resurrected, films like “The Stoning of Soraya M”, well made, sensitively acted (this is not the first time I’ve been in awe of Shoreh Agdashloo’s abilities) should continue to poke and prod the conscience of the world. We may not have a good answer, but we should not just stand idly by. Otherwise, how many others will share in Soraya’s fate?