A drama set in 1986 Iran and centered on a man, Sahebjam, whose car breaks down in a remote village and enters into a conversation with Zahra, who relays to him the story about her niece, Soraya, whose arranged marriage to an abusive tyrant had a tragic ending.

Passionate and compelling account of village horror show.

The title of this powerful film set in a remote Iranian village in 1986 certainly lets prospective viewers know what they’re in for. Add to that the marketing tagline, 'From the producer of The Passion of the Christ" (Stephen McEveety, who’s worked on most of Mel Gibson’s films) and you may begin to suspect this based-on-real-life story about a woman stoned to death for alleged adultery is drenched in blood.

The long, shockingly barbaric stoning sequence near the film’s climax is indeed grueling, and the film’s depiction of the events leading up to it paint a horrifying picture of the powerlessness of women in rural Iran in this period.

The surprise is how much of the rest of this US production (filmed in Jordan with Iranian expatriate actors) is not only dramatically compelling – aided by its impressive pair of female lead performances – but also visually stunning. Many of its images are marked by a stark beauty that contrasts with the horror of its events.

The script is based on the best-selling book of the same title by French journalist Freidoune Sahebjam. He’s played by Jim Caviezel in the opening and closing sequences, which borrow a familiar plot device (viz. The Cars That Ate Paris, U-Turn): when his car breaks down on the outskirts of a remote mountainside village, he’s forced to stay until it’s fixed. After negotiating with the local mechanic, Hashem, he’s publicly approached by an agitated older woman, Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo, Oscar-nominated for 2003’s House of Sand and Fog), who tells him of a terrible event that has just taken place.

In extended flashback we then witness the fate of her niece, Soraya (Mohzhan Marno), a married woman with several sons and daughters. Soraya’s husband is a hateful adulterer who regularly disappears for periods to spend time with the 14-year-old girl he wants to marry. When Soraya refuses to divorce him, the husband blackmails and then conspires with the corrupt local mullah to have her accused of adultery, firstly by arranging for her to start regular housework and child-sitting duties with the simple Hashem, whose wife has recently died.

There are obvious dramatic dangers in building a story around an essentially powerless heroine, but the director Cyrus Nowrasteh (an American of Iranian extraction) and his wife and screenwriting partner Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh smartly drive around this pitfall by making Zahra the pillar of the story. She’s an immensely strong woman who’s determined to defend her niece and, when that fails, to tell the world. Her passion and determination – conveyed vividly by Aghdashloo – help prevent what could have been a depressing film into one that inspires considerable anger.

At least one reviewer has criticised the Iranian male characters for allegedly being "evil archetypes", but the film is carefully set up to show the opposite. The one indisputably evil male – Soraya's husband – clearly manipulates the village powerbrokers. The mullah has to be blackmailed, the mechanic bends when he's threatened with being stoned himself, and the mayor is ambivalent, worried he might be doing the wrong thing in the eyes of God. It's also notable that the village's female gossips are shown to have an
unflattering role in the unfolding tragedy.

Be warned however that the stoning scene is one of the most sickening and ghastly spectacles ever depicted on film. If it wasn’t based on a true story its graphic violence – some of it filmed in close-up – would be hard to defend. Even with 'truth’ as their alibi, these scenes will be too strong for many.

Does it get the message across? It certainly does. Is this sufficient justification, or does the film bathe a little too enthusiastically in the blood-sacrifice themes and aesthetic of Gibson’s The Passion? I confess that I’m in two minds. But it left me feeling a little uneasy.