Stoning of Soraya M

The Stoning of Soraya M. is a “Schindler’s List” for a new generation — a film that starkly exposes the brutality of a regime that is almost impossible for the modern Western mind to comprehend, but is true nonetheless. It won’t be seen as that, I fear, by the elites in modern American culture. After all, it condemns an immoral Iranian culture and power structure the enlightened President Obama is trying to respectfully engage.

Let me be clear right now: I am not drawing a direct, quantitative parallel between the Nazis’ annihilation of six million Jews and the stoning of one woman — or the countless women who have been brutally slaughtered by the Islamofascist regime that has gripped Iran since 1979. The Holocaust is a moral sin without parallel in the 20th Century. But, if Western culture’s post-Holocaust motto is (rightly) “never again,” it’s hard not to think of those words when watching this depiction of the fate of largely voiceless women who are not only routinely subjugated and humiliated in “modern” Iran, but are so easily murdered in the most horrible and brutal fashion possible. I compare this film to “Schindler’s List” because of the power (I hope) it has to shock the conscience of a Western audience that takes its basic freedoms for granted by shining a spotlight on the horrors that still occur outside the bounds of civilized society.

If The Stoning of Soraya M. has one enduring message, it is that Iran under Sharia Law is as savage, brutal and unfree as any society in modern memory. And the fact that this is happening to women (and men) in Iran, even today, should be an international shame. These atrocities have to end. And it is perhaps divine providence that this film debuts in the same month that young Iranians are taking to the streets and enduring the bullets of their oppressors to topple their barbaric regime.

The plot recounts the true story of a woman who in 1986 is sentenced to death (under the brutal regime of the Islamic Revolution) for the “crime” of adultery. Soraya is not actually guilty of adultery. It’s that her husband, Ali, desires to dump his wife and marry a 14-year-old girl — a gift offered to him by a prisoner nominally under his control. Under Islamic Law, Ali can have multiple wives, but his salary as a prison guard does not generate enough money to support two wives — and he also realizes that his strong-willed wife will not accede. So Ali devises a plot to frame his wife for adultery. A little blackmail of the village’s corrupt imam, who helps apply pressure to a mayor who wants to enforce his power and voila … an innocent woman is condemned to death.

Critics are comparing this film to Mel Gibson’s powerfully disturbing The Passion of the Christ, for good reason. Both films are hard to watch, but demand to be seen — and there are parallels. The mayor in Soraya is Pilate — he has doubts about the woman’s guilt, but fears the wrath of both the central Iranian government (Rome) and losing control of his own province (Judaea). Condemning Soraya is a small sacrifice to his political needs. The imam is a stand in for the Jews who demanded that Christ be crucified. And Ali? To call him Judas is to give him humanity. At least Judas felt so much guilt that he hung himself. Ali expresses glee at the condemnation of his inconvenient wife — as if Satan had taken over the body of Judas.

And I don’t feel qualms about summarizing the plot for you, since the title gives the tragedy away. Like in any film, you find yourself hoping beyond hope that Soraya will get away — that sanity will prevail. And, since I’ve seen the brutality of The Passion of the Christ, I can make a comparison. Director Cyrus Nowrasteh is taking it easy on us. Not only is the torturous death of Soraya less graphic and disturbing than Gibson’s interpretation of Christ’s death, as Nowrasteh revealed in an interview with movie critic Christian Toto, the real thing is much worse.

Which brings me to the examination of other critics of this film, who seem to have an inability to see this film with a sense of moral clarity — to absorb the film’s message without filtering it through a multicultural sieve that sees Western traditions as equally wicked, of not worse. Roger Ebert cannot bring himself to condemn the contemporary practice of stoning women in Iran for phantom “crimes” without drawing parallels to a long-gone “Christian” practice:

The Islamic practice of stoning women and the Christian practice of burning them as witches are both born not from religious reasons but of a male desire to subjugate women and define them in terms of sexuality. Is this in dispute? Are there any theologians who support such actions? Of all the most severe punishments of both religions, this is the one most skewed against women, and the one most convenient for men.

To be sure, no witches have been burned at the stake in many long years, and few ever were. But women are still stoned to death in some Islamic countries, including Iran, where “The Stoning of Soraya M.” is set. The practice survives in backward rural areas, and the law turns a blind eye.

I see. Nice of Ebert to point out that “no witches have been burned at the stake in many long years, and few ever were.” Yet he seems to not realize that it is absurd to compare a small cadre of Christian fanatics last plying their evil trade in the 17th Century (which no Christian today, and most then, would ever defend) without making any kind of moral judgment. “It is rare,” Ebert writes, for women in Iran to be stoned to death (not so rare, as it turns out) and “Iran denies it.” Ebert seems pleased to parrot the regime’s line … but … well, that’s all Ebert has to say about it. He constructs a ludicrous equivalency between a practice of the Middle Ages and a one-year period of insane fanaticism in an obscure (if obsessed-over) Christian sect in America 320 years ago to something that his happening right now in Iran. As for his question: “Are there any theologians who support such actions?” Yes. There are. (The fact that Iran’s regime is only now, with the spotlight shined on its brutality, contemplating cracking down on stoning only proves its prevelance.)

I want to take a moment here to note what else Ebert and every other mainstream reviewer has not felt the moral qualms to comment upon. Is there nothing critical to say about a depraved “modern” culture that considers normal the practice of fathers handing over their 14-year-old daughters to be the property of a 30-something man? As a conservative, modern liberal thought considers me a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal. Ebert and his ilk are the “enlightened,” worldly liberals, much more concerned about the plight of women than I am, right? But why do I, and not Ebert, point out the plain fact that this custom — practiced in Iran and other non-Western cultures — devalues and d
ehumanizes women? Apparently, liberals like Ebert so value “cultural differences,” they are loath to even mention it. Yet I — the insular conservative, the cultural idiot — was struck by that aspect of the plot right away.

There’s a scene in the film in which one of Soraya and Ali’s children spills a cup at the dinner table. Ali uses the incident as a reason to humiliate his wife in front of his sons — all the better to teach them where a woman’s place is in Sharia Law and even secular Islamic culture. That kind of disrespect toward women is just supposed to be accepted. In the movie, it’s a hint of what’s to come for Soraya, but it also is seems to be accepted without comment from liberal movie critics.

I could go on with excerpts from high-powered and influential movie reviewers who at turns either fail to make moral judgments, or excuse aspects of Islamic culture with fantastical comparisons to a perverted and ancient view of Western normse. But, frankly, I don’t have the stomach, and this review is long enough already.

This movie is the most profoundly feminist film I’ve ever seen. Iranian-born actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her work in The House of Sand and Fog and gave an unforgettable turn in Season 4 of 24, should be nominated again for her performance in this film. The moral center of the film — expressing the shock, fear, outrage and heartbreak of the audience — she landed and delivered the performance of a lifetime for an actress. (She has also been an activist for women in Iran and defeating the Islamofascist regime, having escaped the country during the revolution).

The film is not perfect. The post-climax ending is a little convoluted, but after an hour and a half of tension and anticipation of misery, its triumphalism is a salve. My wife and I left the film, as did many, in a daze — wiping away tears. We wandered out into the alley of the theater in Old Pasadena and into the orbit of a well-meaning activist handing out rubber bracelets (appropriately green for the color of the burgeoning Iranian revolution) urging us to wear it in support of oppressed women in backward, brutal societies such as Iran’s.

I understand the sentiment, but after seeing this film, the vanity of wearing such an accoutrement of “awareness” seems woefully inadequate.

UPDATE: JUNE 30, 10:45 PM I was remiss in merely providing links to movie reviewer Christian Toto’s great reporting and commentary on this film in the text of this post. I meant to better highlight Toto’s work in more detail. He conducted an enlightening and news-making interview with director Cyrus Nowrasteh — in two parts at Big Hollywood here and here. And here’s a link to Toto’s review of the film at Pajamas Media.

Oops! Almost forgot to mention Toto’s posts about this movie, and his criticism of the criticism of this movie, at What Would Toto Watch. Click here and also here for some good stuff.