The Stoning of Soraya M. is set in rural post-revolution Iran, yet it feels so far outside our accepted American sense of law and decency it might as well be set on an exotic alien world. Islamic Sharia law is not justice as understood in the West; the onus is placed on the defendant. A woman accused of adultery must prove her innocence, and the penalty is death. This was the awful fate faced by the real-life Soraya M., and the film details her plight in excruciating detail, right to the brutal end, which comes one sharp stone at a time.
A dutiful mother of six, the bright and resilient Soraya (Mohzan Marno) is deemed an "inconvenient wife" by her vain husband, who wishes to marry a younger, prettier woman from the next village over, but can't wait for a divorce. So he conspires with the town elders and a phalanx of cronies to back his baseless claims of infidelity between Soraya and the gentle widower she cooks and cleans for. Slowly the walls close in around her, and everyone in Soraya's life turns their backs on her, except for her brave, headstrong Aunt Zahra (the amazing Shoreh Aghdasloo), who fiercely battles to stop the outrage.
Huband Ali (Navid Negahban) is played as a reprehensible mustache-twirling villain, with only the merest traces of humanity visible behind his raging, bestial eyes. Equally loathsome is the town's Mullah (Ali Pourtash), a convict under the shah who now selfishly abuses his newfound power to protect himself. Even the good people in town surrender to their malevolence, losing their decency with each stone hurled.
This is a devastating, harrowing experience, but it's also about as subtle as a Sunday school coloring book, with clearly drawn lines of good and evil. Director-writer Cyrus Nowrasteh's visuals are potent and sometimes lyrical, though as a storyteller he tends to favor overwrought hand-wringing.
The Passion's Jim Caviezel continues his weird fixation with religious torture porn, appearing in the movie's framing device as a French-Iranian journalist who stumbles into town, is told the horrible story by Zahra, and barely escapes with the tapes and his life.
As powerful as the film is, it occasionally feels like an unbalanced polemic in search of drama. Yet it's hard to ignore that this 8th century barbarism took place in 1986, and there is evidence that similar atrocities continue in some parts of the Muslim world.
The film will undoubtedly be championed in certain circles, by those who will see it as an excuse to exert their own piety and moral superiority. Yet as long as faith supersedes reason and basic humanity, there can be no justice and no peace. A pox on all of our houses.
At the Landmark Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.