The New York Times offered a weird review of The Stoning of Soraya M, oddly juxtaposed with one from the same writer for also-excellent The Hurt LockerNewsbusters noticed it as well, as did Mitch Berg.  Stephen Holden calls the painful and realistic depiction of a stoning “lurid torture-porn,” missing the entire point:

“The Stoning of Soraya M.,” a true story of religiously sanctioned misogyny and mob violence in an Iranian village, thoroughly blurs the line between high-minded outrage and lurid torture-porn.

Not since “The Passion of the Christ” has a film depicted a public execution in such graphic detail. In the approximately 20 minutes during which the killing unfolds, the camera repeatedly returns to study the battered face and body of the title character (Mozhan Marno) as she is stoned to death. Buried up to her waist in a hole dug for the occasion, she is pelted with rocks and profanity by the male villagers, including her father, husband and two sons, until she dies.

To say this is an exaggeration is to put it mildly.  First, the stoning sequence lasts about eight minutes, not 20.  It starts at the 1:31:30 mark, it’s over by 1:40, and it’s intercut with at least one flashback sequence.

But what exactly do we see?  We see less actual violence in these eight minutes than we saw in the Academy Award-winning film Rocky, for instance, and certainly less than the climactic sequence of The Godfather.  The stoning sequence in Stoning is powerful because it’s portrayed realistically, and it challenges the audience to to feel something after seeing it.

In fact, though, actual executions by stoning take a lot longer than eight minutes, or even 20 — they often take between an hour and an hour and a half.  This wasn’t exploitive; it was an honest depiction of what happens far too often in this world.  It is “didactic” in that sense, another Holden accusation, as it instructs people why this barbaric practice should be stopped.

Contrast this review to one that appeared the same day for The Hurt Locker in the NYT, written by A.O. Scott:

If “The Hurt Locker” is not the best action movie of the summer, I’ll blow up my car. The movie is a viscerally exciting, adrenaline-soaked tour de force of suspense and surprise, full of explosions and hectic scenes of combat, but it blows a hole in the condescending assumption that such effects are just empty spectacle or mindless noise.

I agree with Scott in this.  The violence in The Hurt Locker is also realistic and “full of explosions,” but it’s a lot more, too.  It’s a good thing that Holden didn’t review it, because he would have called it war porn.

The Stoning of Soraya M got off to a good art-house start this weekend, taking in more than $4300 per screen.  That will hopefully get the film wider distribution in the next couple of weeks.  Be sure to see it if you have not yet done so.

Addendum: For another look at Holden’s oeuvre, check out the review he wrote for 9 Songs, a controversial film that included explicit sexual intercourse, complete with insertions.  He never uses the word “porn” as a description of 9 Songs, despite the rather obvious application — one that didn’t escape the commenters on that article.  I’d guess that 9 Songs didn’t trip his political biases.

Update: Tommy Christopher has a good point-by-point takedown of the Holden review, and notes that his prediction came true.

Tags: New York