He who is without sin...

By  Harry Forbes and John Mulderig, Catholic News Service
  • June 26, 2009
{mosimage}Just last year, a Pakistani couple was stoned for adultery, a Somali woman met a similar fate on the same charge and two Iranian men were executed in this excruciating manner. Five of the world’s predominantly Muslim countries, as well as about one-third of Nigeria’s 36 states, still include stoning among the penalties in their criminal codes.

This barbaric practice is depicted unflinchingly in The Stoning of Soraya M. (Roadside/Mpower), a compelling, often moving film version of Freidoune Sahebjam’s 1994 best-seller, based on an actual incident in 1986. Set in a remote Iranian village, the narrative charts a harrowing chronicle of oppression and community corruption.

The 1979 Iranian revolution made Shariah — the ancient collection of laws derived from the Quran — the template for the nation’s civil legislation. As a result, adultery, which under the shah was merely punished with fines or community service, became a capital offence.

The film shows how, seven years after the monarch’s ouster, philandering husband Ali (Navid Negahban) was anxious to be rid of his devoted wife, Soraya (Mozhan Marno), so he would be free to marry a 14-year-old girl. But Soraya resists a divorce, fearing it will mean economic ruin for her and her children.

So Ali falsely accuses Soraya of breaking her wedding vows, knowing full well that, if convicted, she will be stoned. Soraya’s unlikely lover, Ali claims, is mild-mannered widower Hashem (Parviz Sayyad), for whom, at Ali’s own suggestion, Soraya has been working as a housekeeper, while helping to care for his mentally impaired son.

Weak-willed Ebrahim (David Diaan), the mayor, is troubled by the flimsiness of the case. But the revolution has left real power in the hands of the local mullah (Ali Pourtash), a former con man whose shady past Ali threatens to uncover. (In reality, the mullah’s pre-revolutionary crime was child molestation.)

Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo), Soraya’s courageous aunt — who openly yearns for what she believes were the more civilized days of the shah — passionately resists the mounting conspiracy, boldly confronting Soraya’s accusers. But Soraya ignores Zahra’s warnings. The story is told in flashback as Zahra recounts these events to French-Iranian journalist Sahebjam (Jim Caviezel). Soraya’s fate at the hands of the self-righteously frenzied community is presented in such a way that some — including producer Stephen McEveety — might glean parallels to Christ’s final hours.

Betrayed, falsely condemned and abandoned by all except the faithful Zahra, Soraya — Farsi for “peace be with you” — is handed over to the bloodthirsty mob, in the midst of which ragamuffin youngsters rhythmically beat stones together as they anticipate her death.

Soraya is immobilized — buried up to the waist with her hands bound behind her — and exposed, not only to the hurled rocks, but to the insults and denunciations of her murderers.

The ugly episode certainly brings to mind Jesus’ iconic words about casting the first stone (John 8:7).

Aghdashloo is majestic as the outraged matriarch,. Zahra comforts Soraya with the promise that “God and paradise are waiting for you.” Marno, for her part, evokes deep pathos.

Director Cyrus Nowrasteh’s script, co-written with wife Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh, takes an admirable stand against injustice while promoting women’s equality and respect for life and human dignity.

In sum, a hauntingly powerful tale whose dramatically justified violence may restrict its appeal, even as its treatment of a serious issue makes vivid a pressing global concern.

The film is in Farsi, with subtitles.

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