December 1, 2009 -- This film, based on a true account (book by Freidoune Sahebjam) of the 1986 stoning of an innocent Iranian woman, marches methodically on from the beginning to its inevitable conclusion: a long, excruciating, sickening look at the reality of what happens when a person is stoned to death. This is a true-life horror story with a devilish Kafkaesque twist. This is not an entertaining film. It is a horrifying object lesson on what can happen in a country when women have few rights and, religion, rather than secular law, sets the rules of punishment.
The story starts with a Iranian-French journalist, Freidoune Sahebjam (played by James Caviezel of “The Passion of the Christ”), being stranded near an Iranian border town when his car breaks down. A local mechanic, Hashem (Parviz Sayyad) reluctantly agrees to try to fix it immediately so Sahebjam can get across the border before dark. While waiting for the repair, Sahebjam is contacted by Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo of “House of Sand and Fog”). She has a story to tell him: The story of the stoning of Soraya Manutchehri, which took place in the village the day before Sahebjam arrived. She tells Sahebjam the story in secret because the villagers don't want the story to get out. She asks him to turn on his tape recorder before she tells him the story of the stoning. Part of the story takes place after the stoning, but most of it is told in flashbacks leading up to the time of the stoning.
Zahra tells Sahebjam that Soraya was her friend. Soraya's marriage to Ali (David Negahban) was in trouble. Ali was having an affair with a 14-year-old girl, and was simultaneously obtaining money from the girl's wealthy father for the promise of arranging his release from prison, where Ali was a guard. Soraya wanted to be free of Ali and he wanted a divorce from her, but he was unwilling to provide for her and his two young daughters. He was only willing to provide for his two sons.
Ali and his friends, the Mayor, Ebrahim (David Diaan) and the village Mullah (Ali Pourtash) cook up a scheme for Soraya to get a job as a maid, taking care of widower Hashem and his son. At first, it looks like Soraya can use the money she earns from this job to get free of Ali, and perhaps even marry Hashem, but it turns out Ali has other plans. He pressures the Mullah to go along with his scheme to accuse Soraya of adultery. He threatens to expose the criminal past of the Mullah, who was once one of his prisoners. He also threatens Hashem with the loss of his son if he doesn't go along with the scheme. Hashem is a nice enough guy, but doesn't have the spine to stand up against Ali's murderous plans.
When Zahara begins to figure out what is going on, she desperately tries to save Soraya, but the wheels that are in motion cannot be stopped. Soraya refuses to believe such a monstrous thing could be happening. Only when it is too late does she try to escape the village. Hashem finally admits that he lied as part of a scheme to get rid of Soraya, but his admission of guilt is too late to save her. The stoning itself is lengthy and graphic and very hard to watch. It is a bloody lesson on the barbarism and cruelty of capital punishment. While killing his wife, Ali calls her a bitch. Soraya's own father (played by Vachik Mangassarian) calls her a cunt. After she is dead Soraya doesn't even get a proper burial. All this from the practitioners of a religion that revers women, or at least is supposed to. In his last sermon, the prophet Mohammed said, “Treat your women well and be kind to them ... ”
This is meant to be an object lesson about stoning (which is still done in Iran, according to the film, despite official denials) and about the lack of rights for women (Hashem, Ali and the Mullah all faced no punishment for their part in the murder of Soraya and matters of adultery). Islamic nations are not the only ones in which women suffer injustices. America, which is more like Iran than any other major industrialized nation, recently saw the addition of a health care amendment by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich, which is designed to eliminate insurance coverage for most abortions. This is not directed at all women, just women who are too poor to afford the abortion options which will always be available to women of wealth. This rule, if passed into the law, would bring American abortion practices even closer to those of Iran, which does allow abortions in some cases. Proposed abortion laws in South Dakota are even more restrictive than those in Iran. When religious zealots take control of politics and the judicial system, human rights suffer.
This movie is well acted, directed, edited and filmed, however, it is also depressing, uninspiring and sickening. Like a glacier, it moves slowly and inexorably towards its final conclusion. There is a bit of drama tacked on to the film near the end of the film that seems both contrived and phony. The plot contrivance fails to provide something that the rest of the film lacks, suspense. It rates a C.
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