Smells like a desert storm – The Stoning of Soraya M

Based on the book of the same name by journalist Freidoune Sahebjam The Stoning of Soraya M is a brutal look at life for women in a small village in Iran in 1986. We already know what happens here, the title tells you how this is going to end, so the film is left to tell us the story of the build up to the event and how it came to pass that a whole village murdered a woman accused of adultery in such a terrible way.

This is a powerful story. Soraya (Mozhan Marno) is a kind, spirited woman whose bad marriage leads her cruel, divorce-seeking husband to take dire action against her. After he falls in love with a 14-year-old girl he conspires with the local mullah, himself a former criminal, to accuse Soraya of infidelity, which he knows means a public execution by stoning. Her main ally is her aunt Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo) who not only does her best to help Soraya but is the person who gets her story out into the wider world.

The local mayor Ebrahim (David Diaan) is very well played; understated and contained with barely suppressed emotions all the way through as befitting a diplomat, the eyes give him away and what he truly feels about what is happening. Ali Pourtash who plays the mullah gives another fine performance; his supposed holiness is defiled by his agreement to take part in the plot against Soraya, which will lead to her doom and he plays the deceit well. Navid Negahban as Soraya’s husband Ali unfortunately lets the side down with a rather one-dimensional portrayal. His whole performance seems to be based on a panto villain and he hams up the “baddie”role far too much when it is surely unnecessary; Ali’s actions can speak for his character.

This was one of the problems with the main event at the end of the film. The scenes of the stoning itself although powerful felt somehow overdone. In this age where images of stonings and worse have been captured on mobiles and broadcast on the internet, when we have seen the soldiers in Abu Ghraib torturing prisoners and taking photos of it, being able to truly shock a modern audience is going to take some doing. Slow motion is over used and John Debney’s no doubt beautiful score is completely out of place and over the top in its emotional soaring. A very simple scoreless shot of the event with perhaps only the actual sounds of the mob, Soraya herself, the crying women and the travelling circus would have been far more shocking to experience as we would have no cinematic effects or music trying to influence what we might be feeling.

The beautiful cinematography of Joel Ransom shows the haunting landscapes and desert colours. The filmmakers had to find a small village in an undisclosed Arab country in the Middle East where they could shoot the film without causing any controversy and indeed this film suffers from what would appear to be a fear of backlash, which is what makes it especially poignant.

“I thought, if this is really happening all over the world, someone needs to shine a light on it, somehow the world has to become more aware of it” (Director Cyrus Nowrasteh).

Ultimately he is right, the story is all too real and remains so for far too many women around the world. Watch this film and then get educated, make a noise, demand action.

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