Quite a coincidence, isn’t it, that Cyrus Nowrasteh’s The Stoning of Soraya M. is getting its American release in the midst of the violent turmoil following the Iranian presidential election. Whatever the outcome, that fiercely contested election is generally viewed as a struggle between democracy and theocracy — that is, between the idea of a secular, democratically elected government and Iran’s current Islamist regime, a repressive religious dictatorship of clerics.
Or to put it in the lurid terms of director/co-writer Nowrasteh’s film, the choice is between a free, open, egalitarian society and a religious reign of terror in which an all-male claque, facilitated by an obliging mullah, can help a cheating husband get rid of his “inconvenient wife” by accusing her of adultery and having her stoned to death, with full official approval.
What a rich field of muck, begging for the rake. The melodrama is framed as a flashback from a true-life event of more than thirty years ago. Shortly after the Islamic revolution and the overthrow of the US-backed Shah in 1978-1979, a French-Iranian journalist named Freidoune Sahebjam (played by Jim Caviezel) gets stuck for a day in the village of Kupayeh when his car breaks down. The mayor (David Diaan) and the local mullah (Ali Pourtash) make a great show of welcoming the foreigner to town, but we can see they’re really monitoring him, especially when they learn he’s a reporter. The only other villager who’s excited to see Sahebjam — from what can tell of her emotions underneath the chador — is a woman named Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo), who surreptitiously invites Sahebjam to her house in order to tell him what recently happened to her niece, Soraya. Intrigued, he tapes her account.
Soraya (stage actor Mozhan Marnó, who also appeared in Charlie Wilson’s War) and her husband Ali (Navid Negahban) are dealing with typical marital blahs after years of marriage and four children, except that in Islamist Iran, Ali has an unfair cultural advantage that’s unthinkable in the West. He wants to buy a fourteen-year-old girl to replace Soraya, but since he can’t afford to keep two wives, he needs to find a way to get Soraya out of the picture. Simple. All Ali needs to do is huddle with the mullah, plant the suspicion that Soraya is cheating on him (she works as a domestic in the house of a lonely, easily manipulated widower) and then let the patriarchal system do the rest. As we already know from the title, Soraya is pre-ordained for execution, no way out.
Her death by legally sanctioned stoning is the centerpiece of the film, and director Nowrasteh, who with his wife Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh adapted Sahebjam’s book, luxuriates — that’s the best way to describe it — in the gory details. From the long, slow lead-in in which Soraya is dragged from her home and buried waist-deep in the ground to the protracted scene in which each “offended” male (including her father and her young sons) takes turns hurling rocks at her face, Nowrasteh emphasizes Soraya’s suffering in extremely graphic detail. We could call it Outrage Porn. We’re appalled by it but we can’t move on. The director won’t let us. The money shot goes on forever.
With its spurting blood and multiple camera angles to catch each individual blow, Soraya’s agony reminds us of the barbaric death of another innocent, in Mel Gibson’s contentious The Passion of the Christ. Sure enough, Soraya M. and Passion share a producer, frequent Gibson collaborator Stephen McEveety, who also produced the rightwing “patriotic” comedy An American Carol. That’s a dubious pedigree. Of course, the stoning scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian comes to mind, particularly when a traveling performing troupe arrives in Soraya’s village just in time for the execution — “Sorry, with the stoning we’ve got enough entertainment for today, fellows.”
In its self-righteous fury, Soraya also reminds us of another frenzied indictment of post-revolutionary Iran, Not Without My Daughter (1991), in which brave Sally Field and her child escape the country — obviously hoping to not wind up like poor Soraya. At the end of Nowrasteh’s bloodbath, we half expect a PSA insert from Dick Cheney to suddenly fill the screen. “What you have just seen,” Cheney would sneer, “is the reason we’ve decided to invade Iran without further delay.” But wait. Those days are over, aren’t they?
In any case, The Stoning of Soraya M. is a strange and repugnant piece of work, half hot-button political propaganda and half sadomasochistic Outrage Porn. We get to soak up the gore while simultaneously moaning about the human rights violation. To label it “feminist” would debase the meaning of the term. Compare and contrast it, for example, to Andrzej Wajda’s recently released Katyn, which likewise deals with an historical atrocity, the mass murder of Polish army officers by the Soviets during WWII. Wajda had no need to spend more than a few seconds on the actual execution of the victims — he had more important business elsewhere in the story. Soraya M. has no more important business than the grisly agony of its reluctant “martyr.” It’s cheap and degrading and it stinks from here to Tehran.
While we’re on the subject of female trouble, let’s all drop in on Lea de Lonval (Michelle Pfeiffer), the over-the-hill hooker — excuse me, courtesan — heroine of Stephen Frears’ Chéri, an adaptation of the tragic romance by Colette (1873-1954).
Tart-about-town Lea was once the toast of Belle Epoque Paris, but now, as a femme d’un certain age, she finds she’s missing something in her life: the love of a pale young dandy named Fred Peloux, aka Chéri (Rupert Friend, the romantic Nazi in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas), spoiled son of Lea’s one-time rival Charlotte (Kathy Bates, blowing steam from her nostrils). Just as Lea’s romance with the wan, self-centered, years-younger Chéri is progressing, his mother marries him off to a rich young woman and Lea spends the rest of the film pining for him, decoratively, in flouncy period gowns amid Art Nouveau frou-frou décor.
Collette is not Marcel Proust. Still, we should expect director Frears to mine at least a smidgeon of characterological complexity out of Lea’s lovelorn situation. Instead, Pfeiffer has little to do besides posing in the sumptuous interiors and repeating screenwriter Christopher Hampton’s moist, dime-store dialogue. We didn’t expect much out of Hampton (Atonement, The Quiet American), but Frears (The Queen, Dirty Pretty Things) is capable of much better than this insubstantial bit of fluff, with its whores sitting around dishing each other. One of the old broads, played by 1960s zircon Anita Pallenberg (whose face resembles that of her onetime squeeze, Keith Richards) offers an apt critique of the film itself: “You have everything you want, and none of it means a thing.”