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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Fog/Mist
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The Stoning of Soraya M.: Brutal punishment

The Stoning of Soraya M., an impassioned, American-financed drama, is in service to the filmmakers' opposition to the religiously sanctioned stoning of inconvenient or insubordinate Muslim women in Iran and elsewhere. So far, so good. However, the film is a classic case of preaching to the choir, since it's doubtful the film will reach many of the minds that need changing.

The film is based on a true incident written about in 1994 by novelist and journalist Freidoune Sahebjam. The incident he recorded occurred approximately 20-25 years ago.

The most discouraging thing about The Stoning of Soraya M. is its splatter-film ethos, which is vividly on view throughout the last quarter of the nearly two-hour movie. Granted, the title says it all: A stoning will occur; about that there is no suspense. But as Soraya M.'s (Mozhan Marnò) half-buried body arches back and then bobs forward like a battered punching bag with each stone thrust to her forehead - her fresh, red blood all the while contrasting with the parched, dusty landscape - viewers also experience this protracted agony and begin to crave blessed release.

Not since 2004's The Passion of the Christ have we seen such an explicit and sustained assault on the flesh in a nonhorror film. Coincidentally, starring in that earlier film as the crucified title character was James Caviezel, who co-stars in The Stoning as the journalist whose car breaks down in a godforsaken Iranian village and who remains there long enough to uncover its secrets.

Until the ritual stoning starts in the film's last 30 minutes, there are many segments of ethnographic interest as we are given entrée to Muslim women's often hidden world behind the chador, and the piece also provides work for many compelling Iranian-born actors. Still, the melodrama is marred by stark distinctions between good and evil, an overly simplistic kind of dramaturgy.

Rather than increasing sympathy for the plight of women living under the ironclad rule of paternalistic theocracies, The Stoning of Soraya M. is more likely to incite Western antipathy toward the Islamic faith. It is possible to support the journalistic ideal that no stoning should be left unturned while also championing better storytelling.

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