Dir. Cyrus Nowrasteh. US. 2008. 116mins.
This harrowing, if cinematically flawed, account of a male mob’s murder of a young wife and mother according to Shariah law in an Iranian village in 1986, just a few years after Khomeini took power, takes on particular relevance today. Exposes in the western media about ‘honour killings,’ not only in the Middle and Near East but also in Europe and the US, have only recently taken up numerous column inches in newspapers and provided topics for tv specials.
The film is a dramatized account of French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam’s 1994 non-fiction book of the same title, based on his recording of the testimony from the victim’s enlightened aunt. Jim Caviezel portrays Sahebjam, but only in short sequences that bracket the movie. His presence is passive, nearly negligible.
Ali (Negahban) wants to divorce angelic Soraya (Marno), his wife of 20 years and mother of his four children, in order to marry a 14-year-old girl. Fearing a life of poverty for herself and her two daughters (the sons side with their father), she refuses. Zahra (Aghdashloo), a tough, outspoken middle-aged woman who refuses to adapt to the newly repressive role of women in the post-Shah Islamic state, attempts in vain to protect her beloved niece. A professional eavesdropper and astute judge of character, she realizes that Ali, with the aid of a fraudulent mullah (Pourtash) and the conflicted mayor (Diaan), is setting Soraya up for an officially sanctioned death in order to gain a freedom he considers his right. ‘This is a man’s world,’ he tells his adolescent sons.
Ali and the mullah, an ex-con whom he blackmails, threaten an illiterate mechanic for whom Soraya works to lie about his innocent relationship with her. The mayor conducts a court of males who unanimously condemn Soraya to die. Despite Zarah’s unceasing efforts to convince them to spare her niece, in a drawn-out sequence the men gleefully hurl stones at the woman, half-buried in the earth according to custom, all the while hypocritically chanting ‘God is great.’ As a mass of like-minded products of their new religiously oriented social system, they are more credible than most of the individual characters that Iranian-American director Nowrasteh depicts.
Ali, for example, is an evil cad who could be modelled on a silent-film villain. The mullah’s performance is as false as his credentials. Even the mayor’s occasionally rendered self-questioning about the swift trial and execution seem forced. Marno’s Soraya is fine as the falsely accused wife, yet Nowrasteh places her in scenes with her daughters in a peaceful green field that have the look and feel of a bathroom-spray commercial. Yes, females are good, males evil.
Aghdashloo, who grew up in Iran, brings to the film the strong presence she displayed in House of Sand and Fog, for which she was nominated for an Oscar. She sometimes chews the scenery, however, overacting a heroic rebelliousness that detracts from the plight of the cursed Soraya.
Thomas J. Papa
Lisa Maria Falcone
Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh
based on the book by Freidoune Sahebjam