Movie Takes

The Stoning of Soraya M.

Is it art -- or propaganda?

By 7.20.09

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As I gave my ticket to the young woman at the entrance to the cinema showing the beautifully but also sickeningly photographed Stoning of Soraya M., she said to me with an official cheerfulness: "Enjoy the film!" Even if she had not seen the film herself, she could hardly have failed to notice that it was named for an atrocity, or to have heard that the audience was required to watch that atrocity in all its ghastly and bloody detail. Yet without quite realizing it, I think, she had put her finger on the problem with the movie. Structurally, that is, movies are entertainment. They are meant to be enjoyed, however disturbing their subject matter. There's no shame in that. The same is true of all art. A week or two before this, I had been to see King Lear at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington and, though I didn't much enjoy it, I never would have thought it an impertinence on the producers' part to try to make me enjoy it. That's the point of going to the theatre, as it is the movies.

King Lear, for those whose memories of their Shakespeare are hazy, includes several murders, the hanging, off-stage, of a young woman, and scenes on stage in which one elderly man is driven mad while another's eyes are gouged out. It would perhaps be too much to say that these are enjoyable moments, but they are part of an experience that very often is enjoyable because it allows us to observe human evil or folly from enough of a distance that our reaction to it is one of contemplation and reflection rather than fear and disgust -- or at least the sort of fear and disgust we would expect to feel in the presence of the real thing, rather than a simulacrum. This performance of Lear, however, tried to close that gap by stressing the horror of the civil war that, to Shakespeare, was only a part -- and that not a major part -- of what the play was about. People in contemporary camouflage gear were shown tossing shrouded corpses into a mass grave for a quarter of an hour. It seems that people get killed in wars. Who knew?

This trick of using vivid visual representations of blood and death is one that contemporary theatrical directors have learned from the movies. At least since Bonnie and Clyde (1967), people have come to expect to be entertained by "daring" attempts to eliminate that distance between reality and representation. We want our movies to "look real." And because of the hyper-realism of cinematic images, the movies are much better at looking real than any other art. As a result, the culture as a whole seems to have accepted the dubious premise that the more graphic its imagery of physical horror the more authentic a movie is. Being true to death is now more highly valued than being true to life, and it can become a fatal temptation to a movie-maker to try to make our flesh creep by making us look at that which no normal person would ever wish to see.

This is what I think has happened to director Cyrus Nowrasteh and the other film-makers involved with The Stoning of Soraya M. I also think I can anticipate what they would say to those who object to having their noses rubbed in the sickening event described in the title of this film. He would tell them that it is good for them to see it. In order to be properly outraged by the deeds which are performed under the aegis of the wicked fanatics who have ruled Iran for the last 30 years, we have to see those deeds in all their horror. It's sort of like having to see a movie before you criticize it, I guess. That I feel the force of that convention is the main reason why I, at least, went to see The Stoning of Soraya M., though I very much wanted not to go. But I couldn't help thinking that it is rather an insult to the audience's imagination to say that it has got to see an actual stoning before it can properly abominate the act of stoning someone. I don't know if I would go so far as to describe the result as "torture-porn," as the New York Times did, but the movie's unnecessarily graphic imagery does lend some color to the reviewer's otherwise ridiculous charge that the evil husband (Navid Negahban) is too evil and resembles an anti-Semitic caricature under the Nazis.

In other words, it's hard not to see the film as propaganda rather than art. It's a pity because what there is of artistry apart from the central episode is very promising. Mozhan Marn as Soraya turns in a fantastic performance, as does the rest of the cast, and the look of the dusty, isolated Iranian mountain village, Kupayeh, where the real-life event on which the film is based took place is, to my eye anyway, utterly convincing. That religion is only the pretext for much more discreditable motives in bringing about the stoning also rings true to me. I especially liked the bit at the end where the narrator, Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo), who is the brave aunt of the victim, points out to the appalled mullah (Ali Pourtash), furious with her for causing Soraya's story to be transmitted to the outside world, that if he really believed in the religion he professed and its law that he claimed to uphold he would be glad for the world to know about what had been done in Kupayeh, rather than ashamed. Without the actual stoning, The Stoning of Soraya M. would be a movie well worth seeing.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.