Let’s get one thing straight: Stoning someone to death for alleged adultery, “proved” only by unsubstantiated accusations and confirmed in a secret tribunal, is completely unacceptable, a reprehensible practice that should be eradicated wherever it’s found. Okay? Now that we’ve got that out of the way, we can safely dismiss The Stoning of Soraya M., a laughably manipulative melodrama based on the true story of an Iranian woman who was stoned to death shortly after the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Filmmaker Cyrus Nowrasteh (an American) stages Soraya’s story as an over-the-top harangue, overemphasizing all the obvious points into incoherence. Framed by the title’s character’s aunt, Zahra (Aghdashloo), telling the story to a French-Iranian journalist, Stoning flashes back to a long, long build-up to the event that’s spoiled right in the title, as her cartoonishly evil husband Ali (Negahban) conspires first to divorce Soraya (Marno) and leave her destitute, and then when that doesn’t work, to frame her for adultery with a local widower, a crime punishable by death.
Stoning forfeits its status as a careful examination of a serious issue by painting every character in the broadest strokes possible and giving only passing mention to the larger political climate that allows these events to happen. Negahban acts like the villain in a cheap thriller, and the movie dips into camp whenever he delivers his threats or merely stands in the background sneering. Every male character (except the pure-hearted journalist, played by Jim “Jesus” Caviezel) is a callous misogynist, and Soraya and Zahra are saintly martyrs. It’s hard to get too worked up over this injustice when it doesn’t even seem like it’s happening to a real person.
Nowrasteh stages the stoning itself in a 10-minute sequence of graphic, slow-motion detail that lingers on every spurt of blood, every moment of impact. It’s as lurid as a horror movie, and often just as absurd, and not affecting in the least. In its simplistic fetishization of martyrdom, Stoning resembles The Passion of the Christ, another movie that was more about suffering as symbolism than as a real human emotion (it was also far more artful and, believe it or not, more subtle). We can all agree that stoning is a moral outrage, but can we save a little of our vitriol for bad movies, too?