Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Maggie 2010: Maggie Smash (Readers Beware)

#60. The Stoning of Soraya M.

I was going to comment directly on this excellent film, until I made the mistake of reading a spate of popular reviews already written about it. On, male reviewer after male reviewer (yes, there are some females as well, but the bias is staggering) condemn the film for its purportedly blanket portrayal of men. AV Club and The Globe and Mail call the film's plot-line ham-fisted and melodramatic. The New York Times is one of numerous reviews to cattily call out a twenty-minute stoning scene as over-the-top and sensationalist, in the same vein as The Passion of the Christ.

So... now Maggie's a little pissed off, and a straight-forward review's gone down the crapper. (TL;DR: The Stoning of Soraya M is well worth viewing with an open mind and an eye for nuanced character portrayals amid horrific overarching realities.)

Let's get a few of the basics straight about this film before I go off the rails: The Stoning of Soraya M. is based on the true story of a woman named Soraya Manutchehri, who was stoned to death in 1986 in the rural mountain village of Kupayeh, under Iranian Sharia law.

"Based on," some may say: "Okay, sure, but how many liberties were taken with the story?" The answer is "almost none," and what liberties are there are almost laughable. Here are two of the biggest ones:

1) The real Soraya M was married at thirteen to a twenty-year-old man. She bore him nine children, seven alive, and in the process incurred his beatings, his wrath, and his campaign to turn the eldest two sons against her. In the movie, no doubt for simplicity, Soraya is featured as having four children: two girls the father ignores, and two sons he turns against her.

2) In real life, the French-Iranian journalist, Freidoune Sahebjam, accidentally chanced upon this story (thanks in no small part to the bravery of Soraya's aunt, Zahra Khanum) two weeks after the stoning occurred. In the movie, the event is said to have occurred the day before the journalist found himself in the city.

Meanwhile, what does not change are some very stark, horrific facts of the original narrative:

1) Soraya M. was stoned to death because she was an "inconvenient wife": Her husband, Ghorban-Ali, wanted to marry a fourteen-year-old girl, but neither wanted to support his first wife nor return her dowry, so he conspired with the local mullah to have her killed.

2) Ghorban-Ali's charges amounted to his word, and the word of a coerced cousin, over a smile and Soraya's purported brushing of hands with another man. Sharia law, as practised after the fall of the Shah, gives a woman the responsibility of proving her own innocence when so accused by her husband; conversely, she is responsible for proving a man's guilt. That same law also ups the punishment for adultery from the convention of fines or community service to death by stoning -- a punishment wherein women are the victims nine times out of ten.

3) Ghorban-Ali was aided by a mullah who'd been convicted as a child molester under the Shah's rule, and released during the revolution. Since Ghorban-Ali was a prison guard, it's not surprising that the complicity of the pair was aided by shared knowledge of the mullah's secret criminal record.

Now, it bears noting that I knew almost none of this going into the film (I knew about the horrors of stoning and its prevalence among certain cultures, but that was about it). Until the end of the film, I did not know Soraya was a real person: rather, I had assumed she was an amalgam of female victims, a fictional representation. To discover that Soraya was a real woman who endured the real brutality of post-revolution Iran's systemic violence against women was a staggering and heart-rending blow.

But here's the real key in all of this: that blow was staggering and heart-rending because the film had been so well constructed--because the crude reality of this scenario had already been driven home. Pablo Picasso once wisely wrote: "Art is a lie that makes us realize truth." The Stoning of Soraya M is a film that does precisely this.

So I began to wonder, what the hell were all these reviewers on, to condemn a movie in the ways I mentioned above? If you'll remember, the main points were "man-hating," "melodramatic," and "sensationalist." And in re-reading the aforementioned reviews, the answer dawned on me pretty quickly: Timing, and the name of the director, informed so much of people's reactions to the material. Specifically, director/writer Cyrus Nowrasteh (The Path to 9/11) is considered a "conservative-leaning" artist -- or so it emerged when reviewers began laying into The Stoning of Soraya M -- and so of course the film was quickly identified by most parties as a blatant ploy to stir up xenophobia against Iranians, condemn Iranian culture in such a way as would justify war/invasion, and otherwise use a singular case to argue for the barbarism of Iran as a whole.

Riiiiight. This would be all well and good, if we'd actually been watching the same film. But as someone who was clueless about the director's past and the implied ideological motivations for making this piece before watching the film itself, I'm going to assume we were watching two very different movies. Let's deconstruct some of those complaints with evidence from the actual film, shall we?

Man-Hating: The most common criticism I encountered was that the portrayals were all too black-and-white, with reviewers complaining that the men were depicted as evil for evil's sake. This was a stunning complaint to me, because a) the Iranian who relays this horrific miscarriage of justice to the world at large is -- gasp! a man! and b) the varied motivations of each guilty male in the piece seemed in fact painstakingly documented; to me, they were one of the most important parts of this film's success.

There is Soraya's husband, Ali, for one--a horrible man who was depicted as precisely that: narcissistic, violent, and sadistic. The man he's based after actually succeeded in having his wife publicly murdered so he could pursue a 14-year-old, so anyone who imagines he should have been given an excuse for his conduct is out of their freaking minds. There are sadists in the world. He is one of them.

The mullah, on the other hand, is portrayed as a coward. He knows his own life is in danger if his secret past is revealed, so he goes from passively preaching to propositioning Soraya as incentive to get her to give Ali a divorce. This "incentive," the "opportunity" to become a holy whore in order to support her children in Ali's absence, does not go over well--and now the mullah's community standing is threatened from two quarters. He thus sides more vigilantly with Ali and seeks Soraya's death as a means to acquit himself from personal danger.

Then there's Ebrahim, the mayor of the town and the film's icon of passive complicity. As Zahra shrewdly points out, when warned by him of the dangers of the new era's laws, Ebrahim does no better by god in standing silently by when he sees wrong-doing about him. Ebrahim's pride was long ago wounded by Zahra's refusal to marry him and we see that chink in his armor clearly directing his decisions to cling to whatever semblance of authority and objectivity he can, even at the cost of his soul. To this end, Ebrahim prays to god in the final minutes before the stoning, begging intervention if what they are doing is wrong, but this divine appeal is precisely the crux of the problem: Ebrahim is the mayor: He should have the inner wisdom and strength to stop this himself. He is not an evil man, but in passively allowing evil to transpire, he is not a good man either.

And then there's Hashem. He actually counts as a third giant "liberty" taken with the story, but since this is a liberty that absolutely promotes "grey" in a movie claimed to be "black-and-white," I'm less than horrified by its insertion. Hashem is widowed in the course of the film; a poor, sweet man and good father who cannot read, he's the perfect patsy for Ali and the mullah, who arrange for Soraya to work in his home after his wife's death in order that they may then accuse her of adultery. Hashem is a good man coerced into doing a bad thing to protect his son, and even then tries to protect his son from the actual stoning. He is a victim of illiteracy and powerlessness -- a trait possibly shared by Soraya's father, a feeble old man essentially living on the charity of his community, who lays some of the worst emotional blows on Soraya before the actual rocks are thrown.

Finally, Soraya's sons are an impressive representation of nuance in this film: She has two of them, both cajoled by their father into believing that their mother is holding them back from what they believe they are entitled to as men. But the presence of two sons allows for variance: Soraya's oldest son exhibits an extraordinarily common response to witnessing abuse (he gets angry at the victim because he is most certainly helpless against the abuser, and conveys that same anger at any and all shows of weakness elsewhere), whereas the youngest does not want his mother to die, and grieves openly (provoking his brother's anger in turn). When the two boys are given stones to throw at their mother, the oldest is looked to for strength by the younger, and he gives it the only way he knows how to: by emulating his father. If anything in this film expresses that men are not evil, it is the very clear way in which these boys are exposed to violence and trained in violence: to quote Morrissey, they are not naturally evil. Furthermore, after the stoning has passed, you can see that the trauma of this event has not forged them for life into heartless monsters: rather, the undoing of their father's lessons seems hinted at then and there. People can change.

I am also staggered by the reviewers who conveniently forget there was a woman in the town--a self-righteous gossip of the worst calibre--equally blood-thirsty where Soraya's fate was concerned. A black-and-white missive about men being bad and women being righteous, this film was not.

Melodramatic: That last point was exhaustively long, but this will be short. Everything about this film -- from the soundtrack to the landscape, to the dialogue, to MarnĂ²'s portrayal of Soraya is intensely restrained. So what do these reviewers really mean when they say "melodramatic"? Well, they're talking about the story, and the bizarre inevitability that if a film is portraying violence against women in another culture it's "political." I don't suppose Schindler's List was too dramatic for these reviewer fellows? No? Well, I guess that's because Schindler's List was about a true story of a gross miscarriage of justice, and one person's struggle to salvage whatever they could from it, whereas The Stoning of Soraya M was... Oh, wait.

Sensationalist: This coded term really just refers to the stoning scene, which seemed to be the only bloody thing reviewers could talk about. And boy, did they seem to hate talking about it! Snidely comparing it to The Passion of the Christ, Scott Tobias' AV Club perhaps best summarizes the sentiments I've now read in a handful of equally catty reviews:

When it finally gets to the stoning, the film recalls The Passion Of The Christ in its near-pornographic fetishism of violence and martyrdom, which may explain Caviezel’s casting. There’s no denying the dramatic force of the killing—just as no right-thinking person would endorse the odious practice, or the outrageous miscarriage of justice that leads to it. But Nowrasteh constantly overplays his hand, not realizing that some horrors speak for themselves.

"Pornographic fetishism"? "Martyrdom"? If there had been a monumental swelling of Gladiator-esque music, if special effects had been used to make Soraya glow with a radiant light of Joan-of-Arc-righteousness at the moment of her death, I might buy that. But... no, sorry. This scene is long and uncomfortable; it is not pleasant to watch, nor is it meant to be. Blood drips and her hands are still tied. She promises Zahra she won't cry but after the first stone, and an agonizing pause, she does. She cries pitifully, unpleasantly, and uselessly, and then she's semi-comatose as the barrage continues until death. Pornographic fetishism of violence my ass: this is just violence. I don't hear anyone complaining about the level of violence in City of God. Do you? Or do you suppose high profile reviews also made the ballsy, arrogant claim that "some horrors speak for themselves" when it came to children murdering children?

The gist of my irateness with these reviews is this: Some horrors do not speak for themselves. That's why the journalist who encountered this story wrote a book about it. That's why the book he wrote is banned in Iran. And, oh, hey! Big cognitive leap here: That's why women are still stoned, beaten, raped, and socially imprisoned the world over.

But for some strange reason it's considered too artistically "safe" (and therefore inferior) to tell a true story about a real woman murdered by dangerous men protected by a dangerous system. You know, just as reviewers get so cranky when Nazis aren't portrayed as touchy-feely do-gooders on the inside. Or when mob bosses aren't all croaking out the word "Rosebud" on their deathbeds.

What I love most about professional (read: paid) reviewers truly has to be the internal consistency of their respective, subjective outlooks -- don't you think? Meanwhile, what I love most about The Stoning of Soraya M is that the film is not really about its titular act of stoning: it's about all the little acts, all the little steps within reach of very average people, that can pull whole communities to such monstrous, irreparable ends.

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