Freidoune Sahebjam (James Caviezel), French-Iranian journalist, is on his way out of Iran with all his notes and cassettes from his investigations, interviews, and observations when his car breaks down in a remote village. Irritated with this inconvenience, he finds the local mechanic but discovers that the old man doesn’t feel like working on Sahebjam’s car until tomorrow. Persistent and impatient, Sahebjam offers the still hesitant mechanic enough money to persuade him to begin the repairs that day. It’s hard to tell why the mechanic would even refuse to begin the repairs since their town is not exactly booming with business.
As Sahebjam goes to find a café, he is warmly greeted on the street by the local mayor and mullah who invite him to be their guest for tea. Sahebjam refuses several times and their warmness quickly disappears. They realize he has no interest in talking with them. Suspicion and fear enter their quiet conversation, as Sahebjam walks away. It’s clear the journalist does not trust these Iranian officials and that he has reason to avoid being their personal guest.
A mysterious woman sees Sahebjam walking down the town’s main dirt road crowded in by shops and residences. She checks the scene, to see if anybody is watching her, rewraps her silky chador up around her face, and then begins to follow him. She is seen by the mullah and the mayor who command her to go away, but she ignores them and continues to seek out Sahebjam. The mullah and mayor become seriously worried, but do not follow her.
As Sahebjam is going over his notebooks at the outdoor table of a café while sipping his coffee, the mysterious woman cautiously throws a stone at him from outside. He sees her leave and picks up the stone, finding a note wrapped around it telling him to come talk to her and giving him her house number. He hesitates but quickly decides to find out what she has to tell him. He packs up his notebook and finishes his coffee, discreetly leaving the café to find her house.
Sahebjam opens the solid gate door to let himself into her courtyard, which scares her two little girls. She comes out of her house to greet him and comforts the girls, explaining they are her niece’s daughters. After sending them inside the house, she invites him to join her at the table in her courtyard and explains in her deep and raspy voice that something horrible has happened in her town the day before. He asks her what she wants him to do and she says wisely, “Take this story with you, so that the world will know what has happened.”
He’s still skeptical that she isn’t wasting his time. But she calmly and confidently continues forward, telling him her name is Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and asking him to record her retelling of what has happened, eyeing the recorder in his bag. He goes along with her instructions, thinking there might be some story here worthy of his time and realizing he doesn’t have anything else to do for the next few hours. He puts his recorder on the table and pulls out one of his well-used cassettes, not having any new ones. As he hits record, her story takes us back in time.
What unfolds is how an uncaring and greedy husband sets a trap to accuse his wife, Soraya (Mozhan Marnó), of adultery so he can have her done away with, freeing him up to propose to the fourteen year old daughter of a doctor in a nearby town. The husband wanted Soraya dead only so he could avoid paying alimony to support her and his two daughters after planning to leave them. With the shrewd counsel of his corrupt friend the mullah, he plots to make it look like Soraya has cheated on him. Although Soraya is a resourceful, strong, and loving mother, she is ultimately naïve and falls into their set up. The husband and the mullah slowly find ways to turn the entire town against Soraya. It is settled in the town’s court that she is guilty of adultery and must be stoned to death by all the men and boys of the town.
Director Cyrus Nowrasteh does an excellent job of creating an inside look into this dark tale of the mistreatment of Iranian people living under unjust rule in his suspenseful and fast-paced 2008 film. Now playing in select theaters, the American film The Stoning of Soraya M. is adapted from the same titled 1994 novel by French-Iranian Freidoune Sahebjam (1933-2008) who reported many of the offenses of the Islamic Republic of Iran during his career.
John Debney’s music score and Joel Ransom’s cinematography set the rustic and dramatic scene of a rural town in 1986 Iran. As graphically violent as the stoning scene in this film seemed like it would be and actually was, I was still able to enjoy learning more intricacies of Iranian culture and politics while faced with the troubling circumstances of mob rule. Unavoidable questions hit us when good-natured characters are caught up in this tragedy, “How much physical and emotional abuse would I suffer to stand up for what is right? Would I have been one of the women watching this stoning on the sidelines or have acted out? If I were a man in this town, what would I have done?”
Heather M. May writes from her hometown: Keene, Texas. Pursuing a graduate degree in Women’s Studies at Texas Woman’s University, she is spending her summer mobilizing communities near Dallas to end the export of electronic waste to developing countries overseas with the non-profit Texas Campaign for the Environment.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1780