- The Washington Times - Friday, June 26, 2009

In a time when the word “torture” is tossed about relatively casually — especially in ritual denunciation of the Bush-Cheney war on terror — the medium of film is uniquely qualified to remind people just what torture actually looks like.

When asked what constitutes torture these days, the average person is just as likely to think waterboarding or Abu Ghraib as anything else. The incessant drumbeat in certain quarters of the blogosphere and the media has had the effect of making the terrorist holding facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, synonymous with the worst aspects of the Spanish Inquisition. Pretending to drown someone in order to gain actionable information about future terrorist plots is, in the view of some, as bad as slapping him on the rack to force a religious conversion.

Indeed, subjecting oneself to the water board has become something of a rite of passage for journalists the world over. Christopher Hitchens famously undertook the procedure in the pages of Vanity Fair; a freelancer for Playboy did the same; even shock jock Mancow underwent the procedure. None of them found it pleasant.

Still, the fact that people would voluntarily subject themselves to such an act suggests in and of itself that the act isn’t torture, at least as the word historically has been understood. You won’t, for instance, find many journalists clamoring to experience a stoning, the subject of an intriguing new film opening this weekend in New York, Los Angeles and Washington.

Set in a small Iranian village shortly after the fall of the Shah, “The Stoning of Soroya M.” opens on Freidoune (Jim Caviezel), a French-Iranian journalist whose car has broken down and who has some time to kill while it is repaired. He encounters Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo), who tells him there is a story he, and the world, must know.

That story is the titular stoning, the unjust murder of an innocent woman by the people of her village for the crime of adultery. Soraya M. (Mozhan Marno) was stuck in an abusive relationship but didn’t have the financial wherewithal to grant her husband, Ali (Navid Negahban), the divorce he so desired. Desperate to get his hands on the teenage girl he had lined up as Soraya’s successor, Ali turned the village elders against Soraya and arranged her execution.

What follows is an extended stoning sequence — 15 minutes of stomach-churning brutality that even a hardened horror fan who has endured the “Saw” series will have difficulty watching. Those who have had the unfortunate experience of seeing a real stoning carried out (the Internet holds all manner of horrors) will recognize Soraya’s helplessness and the inherent cruelty of the punishment. The fact that this is undeniably a torturous way to die is vividly showcased, forcing the audience to reconcile their idea of torture with the reality of torture.

“The Stoning of Soraya M.” is an important movie, one that catalogs the brutality of the medieval regime that seized power in Iran almost 35 years ago — and is in the process of violently suppressing dissent with extreme prejudice. Its portrayal of stoning is also a useful corrective to the sort of comedic depiction of the practice on film embodied, for example, by last weekend’s “Year One.”

The biblical satire directed by Harold Ramis shows Michael Cera taking a couple of rocks to the head as punishment for something or other. The audience titters because the child chosen to throw the stones displays unexpected arm strength and accuracy. This tendency goes as far back as the 1979 classic “Monty Python’s Life of Brian,” in which John Cleese is crushed by a papier-mache boulder after saying “Jehovah.” Very funny, those scenes.

But there’s nothing funny about stoning in real life: The victim, more often than not a woman, is buried waist deep in the sand and bludgeoned with sharp stones until she is dead. Head wounds being what they are, blood flows from the victim as if a faucet has been opened. Eyes are put out, teeth are smashed, the cranium is crushed: This is torture.

It’s hard to imagine Hollywood playing the “crimes” of the Bush administration for laughs: The waterboarding scene in 2007’s “Rendition,” for example, is meant to inspire the utmost horror in the viewer.

This is why “The Stoning of Soroya M.” is an important movie, one that treats the horrors of radical Islam’s more barbaric tendencies seriously. That’s not to say it’s a great film — the villains are beard-stroking, moustache-twirling cardboard cutouts better suited for a cartoon than a serious drama, while the heroines are unflinchingly honest and heroic — but it does highlight a disturbing practice all too often misrepresented by the media.

• SONNY BUNCH can be reached at sbunch@washingtontimes.com.

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