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Originally published July 16, 2009 at 3:20 PM | Page modified July 16, 2009 at 3:22 PM

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Movie review

'The Stoning of Soraya M.' dramatizes a brutal miscarriage of justice

"The Stoning of Soraya M." is a powerful, fact-based drama about an Iranian villager (Oscar nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo) who tries to save a devoted wife and mother (Mozhan Marnò) from being stoned to death for infidelity.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

"The Stoning of Soraya M.," with Shohreh Aghdashloo, Mozhan Marnò, Jim Caviezel. Directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh, from a screenplay by Cyrus and Betsy Nowrasteh. 116 minutes. Rated R for disturbing sequences of brutal violence, and brief strong language. In Farsi, with English subtitles. Seven Gables; see Page 16.

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The spoiler is in the title of "The Stoning of Soraya M.," a powerful, relentlessly brutal drama about Iranian capital punishment.

Rarely depicted in detail in the movies, stoning is presented here as a horrific rite that is mostly used to subjugate women.

Time almost literally stands still as Soraya (Mozhan Marnò), a devoted wife and mother, lives just long enough to see her father, sons and sadistic husband hurl jagged stones that transform her face into a bloody sponge.

Bound and semi-buried in the ground, she can do nothing to protect herself aside from shifting her head to dodge the rocks. Her sense of helplessness is magnified by slow-motion imagery and a soundtrack that uses music and natural sounds to make the horror complete.

What did she do to deserve this? The rest of the movie, which is told mostly in flashback through the eyes of a feisty older woman, Zahra (Oscar nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo), demonstrates how little choice Soraya had in the matter.

Once she and her husband start talking divorce, her fate is sealed. He uses local authorities and gossip to spread lies about Soraya's innocent relationship with a needy widower. When the widower is threatened and provides false testimony, the village's patriarchy is triumphant.

"I'm just an inconvenient wife," says Soraya. "If she's dead, I don't have to pay support," says her husband.

The husband-and-wife filmmaking team, Cyrus and Betsy Nowrasteh, do quite an effective job of telling this story. It may be broadly played at times (and the inspirational ending simply doesn't work), but the buildup to the execution is awfully convincing.

The actors are especially skilled at handling the various pressures that are used to turn Soraya's family against her. What's not always clear is motivation.

The estranged husband seems to have been corrupted by his lust for a younger wife, but his indifference to the final outcome makes you wonder if he had other reasons. Was it all really about male dominance at any cost? Would any female sacrifice have sufficed?

The script is based on Freidoune Sahebjam's best-seller of the same name, which draws on the 1986 execution of an Iranian woman. A French-accented Jim Caviezel briefly stands in for Sahebjam in the movie.

As the film's coda makes clear, stoning continues into the 21st century in too many countries.

John Hartl:

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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