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Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: The Stoning of Soraya M.

March 8th, 2010

The Stoning of Soraya M. - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray

The Stoning of Soraya M. opened in limited release in late June. Based on a true story that is both powerful and disturbing, it is the kind of movie that could do well in limited release, but is far too extreme for mainstream appeal. The film had further obstacles in its way, including a theater count that was too high, a Tomatometer Score that was too low, and an opening weekend the same as The Hurt Locker (which as you've probably heard was the big winner at last night's Oscars). It didn't do that badly at the box office, but it also never truly found an audience. Perhaps it is better suited to the home market?

The film starts with James Caviezel as Freidoune Sahebjam, a French-Iranian journalist traveling through Iran on his way back to France when his car breaks down. He is able to get it towed to a nearby village. There he meets Zahra, a frantic woman desperate to tell him the horrible secret of the town. Something the elders, including the Mullah and the mayor don't want him to learn. Zahra is able to get him alone to tell him what led up to the events of the day before.

She tells him of his niece, Soraya, who is in an abusive marriage to Ghorban-Ali. He not only frequents prostitutes but also wants to divorce her and marry a 14-year old girl. He is unwilling to give her any money, which means that she and her two daughters will starve or be forced into prostitution themselves. Soraya refuses the divorce, despite the imploring of Zahra. However, when she starts working for a widower named Hashem, Ali sees his chance and accuses her of adultery. After threatening enough witnesses to back him up, she is brought to trial. Since the name of the movie is The Stoning of Soraya M., the end result is not a spoiler.

This movie can be divided up into four parts: the bookends with James Caviezel, the early background story of Soraya, her husband's accusations and the trial, and finally the stoning itself. All four parts are about equal in length, which means the preparation and the stoning itself take about 30 minutes out of a 2-hour movie, which is just far too much. At some point it crosses the line from powerful to exploitative. Why show this much? While watching this, I thought of monster movies. Any good horror director will tell you the fear of the unknown is greater than what any director can show on screen. By showing too much, you lessen the fear. The same is true here. The filmmaker here actually lessens the emotional impact of the movie with the depiction of the event.

On the other hand, the performances by Mozhan Marno and especially Shohreh Aghdashloo demand to be seen. (On a side note, while James Caviezel's name is on the cover, he's barely in this movie. I think this is a wise choice made by the filmmakers, as this is not his story. His character only arrived in town after the real story was over. Spending too much time on him would have only been a distraction.) Additionally, while I think focusing too much on the stoning was a mistake, you have to credit the filmmakers for bringing such a difficult and important subject to the big screen.

Extras on the DVD include a three-part "making-of" featurette that runs a combined 43 minutes and are broken up into Inspiration, Production, and Completion. These featurettes are a mixture of talking heads and behind-the-scenes footage. Very thorough. There are also two audio commentary tracks, the first with the director and the screenwriter. Not a lot of energy here, which fits with the tone of the movie. However, this does lead to some dead spots here and there. The second has Stephen A. Marinaccio II, Judy Rhee, Jane Anderson, and Sierra Robinson. That's the line producer, production designer, costume designer, and costume supervisor, respectively. More people means that there are fewer dead spots. Both tracks have some overlap with the featurette and each other, but are worth checking out.

The Blu-ray has no additional extras, while the technical presentation is only adequate. The director didn't say how much the movie cost to make, but in the commentary he hinted that it was substantially less than $10 million and at times you can tell. Furthermore, this is not the kind of film you need to see in High Definition, while on it costs 75% more in this format. Ouch. The list prices are closer, but 43% more it still too much to pay.

The Verdict

On the one hand, The Stoning of Soraya M. features some amazing performances and tells a very powerful story. On the other hand, there are flaws in the execution and the subject matter is very difficult to watch. Because of this, it is worth seeing, but has limited replay value. Call it a rental. Meanwhile, if you do intend to buy, the DVD is the better value over the Blu-ray.

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Filed under: Video Review, The Stoning of Soraya M.