“I want you to take my voice with you.”
Power, manipulation, and love permeate The Stoning of Soraya M., a memorable drama based on a true story from information obtained by French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam, who then authored the 1994 bestselling book of the same name. Cyrus Nowrasteh directs and co-writes the screenplay with his wife Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh. This engaging, tragic plot centers on the events during two consecutive days with a few flashbacks.
Mozhan Marnò stars as the title character who has two daughters, two sons, and a selfish husband who initiates the plot behind the fateful stoning of the title. Soraya mostly conforms with women’s roles in her society while her experienced aunt Zahra, well played by Oscar nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo, consistently keeps watch over all proceedings in the small town and vigilantly defends her niece. These women have strong roles and incredible moments of pure despair. Aghdashloo shines in yet another strong performance as she drives the main plot with her relationship and respectable stature within the town along with her strong willingness to sacrifice for another in unjust situations.
Navid Negahban plays Soraya’s abusive husband Ali, who seeks a divorce to pursue a younger woman. Ali manipulates and coerces three key town figures: a recent widower named Hashem, played by Parviz Sayyad; the town mayor Ebrahim, played by David Diaan; and the local religious man or Mullah, played by Ali Pourtash.
James Caviezel stars as the journalist Sahebjam who fatefully encounters Zahra in the town. Zahra turns to people she knows the best – or at least who she thinks she knows best as the situation escalates, but now must rely on a foreigner getting his car repaired. Audiences know exactly what they are getting as the title suggests, so it is the journey to that seemingly unthinkable action that drives the plot and engages the audience.
Key points like the filmmakers’ realistic depictions of these events and related justifications by the townsmen invoking God’s law are debatable, but audiences can identify with the basic theme – imposing one’s will unjustly on another for selfish reasons. This unfortunate action occurs everywhere in every culture, which is why the film touches the emotional core and almost cannot be forgotten once viewed.
Supplementary situations and events strongly compliment the actual stoning sequence that lets the visuals do the talking as actor dialogue is kept to a minimum. This compelling act has some twists and unexpected events as the brutal violence is even more impactful through the subtle use of special effects. Audiences might feel even more sympathy for Soraya personally if filmmakers developed her character further, but the obvious focus is raising worldwide awareness of these brutal trials that are often viewed as archaic and inhumane.
Filmmakers often use close-up shots at low angles for some emotionally wrenching moments, but a short long shot of several people throwing stones at a prosthetic figure depicting Soraya in the background as the mayor looks away were equally traumatic. Men sent to assist at the event and set up the area provide some haunting moments, while the hurtful family betrayal and rippling effects impact even more than the main stoning sequence, which is well represented in the strong bonus features.
Audiences get some excellent views into the daily production challenges during this film shot at an undisclosed location in an Arab country in the Middle East. Great filmmaking aspects and authentic depictions showcase the talents as the cast and crew wrestle with pertinent questions ranging from “how far do we go?” to “how could people do this?” Marnò even kids around a little to release some tension in the "completion" part of the three-part “making of” featurette, but it really shows how the subject matter deeply connects and even stresses this group. The beginning "inspiration" and middle "production" parts complete the considerable 43-minute “making of” featurette.
The two audio optional commentaries on the feature film provide great insight. The first commentary offers personal intentions along with behind-the-scenes tribulations as Cyrus and Betsy Nowrasteh really explain their actions and emotions clearly. The second commentary option features four people, line producer Stephen A. Marinaccio II, production designer Judy Rhee, costume designer Jane Anderson, and costume supervisor Sierra Robinson, who describe more about the shooting challenges and depicted realism in every aspect in front of the camera. This commentary track injects a bit more humor into the explanations while their expertise really enhances the experience.
The widescreen format (2.35:1 aspect ratio) highlights the considerable filmmaking skills while the 5.1 Dolby Digital audio really enhances the documentary-style camera techniques, costumes, and set design for an experience that is hard to forget. The high quality sound also enhances the relaxed yet driving musical score from composer John Debney while drawing special attention to the authentic Iran’s native Farsi language track with English or Spanish subtitle options – a great achievement by the cast even though this film has been officially banned in Iran. Other bonus features include the theatrical preview. Highly recommended and rated R for brief strong language, domestic violence, and a disturbing sequence of cruel and brutal violence. Also available on Blu-ray.