Friday, July 17, 2009

A Passion Ploy

Before Neda, the young woman who bled to death before the world’s eyes during post-election protests in Iran, there was Soraya, a 35-year-old mother of seven who was stoned to death on trumped-up adultery charges in 1980s Iran, during the reign of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Soraya’s supposedly true story was told in French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam’s novel The Stoning of Soraya M.

The book has been adapted into an unrelievedly grim movie by Cyrus Nowrasteh, who wrote the screenplay with his wife. James Caviezel plays Sahebjam, whose car breaks down, conveniently, in a remote Iranian village, where the desperate, chador-draped Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo), tells him about the killing the previous day of her niece, Soraya (Mozhan Marnò). Soraya's terrible story then unfolds in flashback.

Soraya is married to the abusive Ali (Navid Negahban), a corrupt prison guard who wants to divorce Soraya so he can marry a 14-year-old girl. Although polygamy is allowed under
Sharia law, Ali hopes to avoid supporting Soraya financially. When Soraya takes a job housekeeping for a local widower, Ali seizes the opportunity to accuse her of adultery, a crime punishable by death. Complicit in the scheme are the village’s corrupt mullah and mayor, who subvert Sharia jurisprudence to justify murder. Dressed in angelic white, brave Soraya meets her awful fate -- stoning by an angry mob that includes, incredibly, her husband, her father and her young sons. Although the movie is set in the Islamic world, Soraya is depicted as the perfect Christian martyr. After she has been battered to a bloody pulp, the evil husband notices there is still movement in her eye. "The bitch lives!" he shouts, exhorting the crowd to finish the job. Clearly this is a movie designed to inflame the emotions.

The timing of the movie's release, while neoconservative hawks continue to beat the drums for military intervention in Iran, raises suspicion that it is a skillful piece of anti-Muslim propaganda. Its producers are the folks who brought you similar religioso-sadistic thrills in Mel Gibson’s
The Passion of the Christ (Caviezel was Passion’s bloody Jesus), and Nowrasteh’s résumé includes a TV miniseries that twisted history to blame Clinton for 9/11. The movie has been embraced as proof of Islam’s inhumanity by Watergate crook-turned-evangelical-Christian Chuck Colson, who provides links to "ministry resources based on the film." Colson writes: "This is barbarism. And it's the result of a belief system that ignores the humanity of every person. This is why Christians, who believe in the sanctity of every human life created in the image of God" -- unlike those heathenic Muslims -- "must fight and keep fighting for the rights of women like Soraya." Amnesty International, the human rights group, has denounced the movie as sensationalism, writing on the Huffington Post: "Aside from the numerous inaccuracies and implausibilities, the climax of the film -- a bloody and prolonged stoning scene with villagers pelting the victim -- is so sensationalized that the audience response is likely to be disgust and revulsion at Iranians themselves, who are portrayed as primitive and blood-thirsty savages."

There can be little doubt that The Stoning of Soraya M. has a crypto-political purpose, and a not very subtle one at that. It should be approached with the utmost skepticism.

Shorter version at

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