Update: The film has taken in $117,000 from 27 screens, for a good $4,333 per-screen average, according to studio estimates. This is a film that deserves to be seen, and hopefully, it will see its numbers increase in future weeks, as word-of-mouth spreads and the film is shown in more theaters.
Several weeks ago, when my friend, John Ziegler, asked me to review the film “The Stoning of Soraya M,” he did so specifically because I’m a liberal, but also someone whom he trusts to be fair. Or at least fairer. As he described the film to me, I didn’t really get why anyone would be concerned about liberal reaction to the movie. He explained.
The film has some superficial things in common with “The Passion of the Christ,” such as the same production company (MPower Films), star (Jim Caviezel), and a graphic crucifixion. This was also prior to the Iranian election, so that made a difference, too. Now. the film carries extra resonance, as the death of young Neda echoes through it.
I went into the film, then, knowing what I wasn’t supposed to like about it. I can say, without qualification, that John need not have worried. “The Stoning of Soraya M” is a beautifully-acted drama about a woman, falsely accused of adultery by her husband, who is stoned to death for her “crime,” the crime of being a woman.
The film opens with a heartbreaking grace note, as Shohreh Aghadashloo’s Zahra visits what passes for Soraya’s grave. She shoos a wild dog away from her niece’s remains, then proceeds to wash the bones in the stream next to which they lie. It is one of the more powerful opening scenes I’ve ever watched.
Jim Caviezel plays a French journalist whose car breaks down in Soraya’s village just long enough for Zahra to tell him her story. “Stoning” avoids the trap of many American films about foreigners by not making the Westerner the focus of the story, and Caviezel turns in a terrifically underplayed performance.
As Zahra’s story unfolds, we meet some of the monsters who propel Soraya’s fate. Her husband, a sort of taller, hairier Stanley Tucci, is a lech with his eye on a new, 14 year-old bride. He hatches a plot to frame Soraya for adultery because he would rather see her die than to have to pay her in a divorce. He enlists the help of a local Mullah, another creep who tries to put the moves on Soraya before the deadly plot forms, and the blinkered, ineffectual Mayor of the village. The film gives these villains more humanity than they deserve. I’ve met people like them in real life, and they’re rarely even this complicated.
You go into a film like this knowing that women are going to be culturally disadvantaged in its world, but still, there are shocks delivered with offhand nonchalance. Soraya’s husband, for example, has no trouble turning his sons against their mother, and has an equally easy time discarding his 3 daughters.
Soraya herself is a relatable heroine, not sainted, just a wife and mother trying to salvage a life from the wreckage of her marriage. Her eyes tell much of her story.
Grounding the entire film is Aghadashloo’s powerhouse performance as the only person in town who seems to remember when women were worth something. She’s so world-weary that when she’s horrified, you know something really bad is happening.
Now, about that stoning scene. It is depicted very realistically, and at some length, but I would not compare it to the crucifixion in “The Passion of the Christ,” which I felt was gratuitous. This scene, though hard to watch, felt pitch perfect.
I don’t want to give away all of the film’s secrets, but I will say this: The film is disturbing and heartwrenching, yet there is a triumphant moment in this film that is unique to it. This is the only film I know of whose climactic moment is the very fact that you are seeing it.
“The Stoning of Soraya M” opens Friday, June 26, 2009