Fictionalizing certain aspects of a 1986 incident, recounted in Freidoune Sahebjam's best-selling book in 1994, Soraya M. begins with foreign journalist Freidoune (Jim Caviezel) getting stuck in a remote Iranian village when his car breaks down. There he meets an older woman, Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo), who takes the opportunity to tell Freidoune the sad story of her niece whose abusive marriage ended tragically a day earlier, when she was stoned to death on trumped-up charges of adultery and unfaithfulness. Turns out the husband made up the story so that he would be free to take up with a much, much younger girl he was infatuated with.
What could have been exploitative and dishonest in the wrong hands turns into a powerful, riveting, and important film sure to become one of the year's most controversial. With an uncompromising and unforgettable approach to the true events that inspired it, The Stoning of Soraya M. packs an enormous punch to the gut by refusing to sugarcoat its core story, a remarkable one that defies belief.
At its heart is the superb performance of Aghdashloo as the brave woman who defies the threats of the men around her to get her niece's story out to the world via the tape-recorded interview she gives to a reporter who literally stumbles into these extraordinary events. The Iranian-born Aghdashloo, an Oscar nominee for The House of Sand and Fog, gives great dignity and urgency to the role of someone who once held a higher position in her town but has now been shuffled off to the sidelines by the medieval mentality of the village's current elite. With fire and passion, the actor takes the part by storm; it's the kind of heroic person Aghdashloo has not been allowed to play in a career that has taken her from Iran's stages to success in Hollywood movies and TV shows (24). As Soraya, L.A. native Mozhan Marnò is poised and heartbreakingly effective, especially in scenes where she must say goodbye to her children and then face the "firing squad." Caviezel is well-cast as the journalist, but it's a role that requires mostly listening. The rest of the male cast is serviceable; Navid Negahban is particularly good as the pathetic husband who sets events in motion with his own adultery.
Director Cyrus Nowrasteh (who co-wrote with Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh) admirably does not whitewash the most intense scenes, although the seven-minute stoning sequence may cause some to cover their eyes. But it's fortunate the filmmakers don't attempt to lessen the story's power by sanitizing it in any way.
Written by: Cyrus Nowrasteh and Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh
Directed by: Cyrus Nowrasteh
Starring: Shohreh Aghdashloo, Mozhan Marnò, Jim Caviezel, Navid Negahban