"The story starts off slowly and builds to a brutal and bloody ending that I did not expect." So commented "Jenny-645" on imdb.com regarding The Stoning of Soraya M., the most bracing collusion of moralization and torture porn since The Passion of the Christ.
Arguably even more egregious than Mel Gibson's flick about Jesus, it's little wonder that one can't help but be struck by the similarities Soraya M. has with The Passion: The two films share a producer in Stephen McEveety, and John Debney provided music for both. And just as Gibson sent Catholics into paroxysms of religious ecstasy with a vile re-creation of Jesus' crucifixion in Passion, so does Stoning's Cyrus Nowrasteh revel in the incredulously vicious execution of an innocent woman.
To be clear, and to avoid the dumb surprise suffered by "Jenny-645": The key word in this film's title is "stoning," and all that occurs prior to that orgiastic bloodbath merely serves to set the stage for the thoroughly uncompromising depiction of the event. The film is based on a true story, as first told in a book of the same name by Freidoune Sahebjam (played by Passion Jesus, AKA James Caviezel), which recounts an actual stoning that took place in a small Iranian village in 1986.
Soraya (Mozhan Marnò) was a 35-year-old woman married to a diabolical cretin who not only beat her and flagrantly ran with prostitutes, but also concocted the false accusation of adultery that led to her death sentence. Her life story, one of lifelong oppression and molestation, is a jarring condemnation of the treatment of women under radical Islam, a matter of no small concern. Likewise, the barbarism of her death is an alarming call to arms against a practice that goes on to this day. But in Stoning, all of this is treated two-dimensionally, with sorely underdeveloped characters and a shattering lack of nuance. All of the men here are thoroughly bad, weak, and/or stupid. All of the women are good but trod upon, beautiful and noble despite it all. (Except for the ugly one—she's bad.)
The simplistic, heavy-handed didacticism of the film's first half is a real detriment to its ostensible raison d'être, made all the more suspect in light of the rapturously—almost poetically—horrifying realism devoted to Soraya's tragic end. Only the most limited imaginations could require this relentessly tedious scene to grasp the awfulness of death by stoning, but Stoning can't be accused of creating anything less than a hyper-awareness of the inhumanity and injustice that continues to rage in the most ignorant corners of civilization.