PHILADELPHIA - When Iranian-born actress Shohreh Aghdashloo
was asked by co-director Cyrus Nowrasteh to consider the lead
role in the movie "The Stoning of Soraya M.," her immediate
reaction was, "I've been waiting for this for 20 years."
The film, which was released June 26, is based on the
barbaric 1986 execution of an Iranian mother on false charges
of adultery orchestrated by a cruel husband intent on
marrying a young girl and assisted by a corrupt mullah. The
two whip the men of the village into a frenzy resulting in
the graphically depicted execution.
The stoning scene is certainly graphic, but Aghdashloo noted,
"It only lasts six minutes. I have seen a tape of a real
stoning and it took an hour and a half."
Aghdashloo plays Zahra, the victim's courageous aunt who, in
a relentless pursuit of justice, gives an account of the case
to a French-Iranian journalist, Freidoune Sahebjam (Jim
Caviezel, who portrayed Jesus in "The Passion of the
Christ"). The journalist wrote a best-selling book of the
same title as the movie.
"This film will forever be close to my heart; I had no
hesitation, none whatsoever, to do it," said Aghdashloo,
whose own feeling on the state of the oppression of women in
her native country is summed up by Zahra's words near the
beginning, "The voices of women do not matter here."
The huge demonstrations against what has been viewed as a
rigged presidential election in Iran have changed
Aghdashloo's perception of "The Stoning of Soraya M."
Up until the June 12 election and the ensuing protests, "my
focus was on a voiceless woman being stoned. Now it is about
the woman who stands up for her rights," she told The
Catholic Standard & Times, Philadelphia's archdiocesan
newspaper, while in town to promote the movie.
"The irony is amazing, how timely and timeless the film is.
It has a woman speaking to a reporter. Now in Iran women are
standing up and telling reporters what is going on," she
said. "There are hundreds of thousands protesting, and 40
percent of them are women."
"The Stoning of Soraya M." received a classification of L -
limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many
adults would find troubling - from the U.S. bishops' Office
for Film & Broadcasting for "a sequence of intense
violence, torture, sexual references and one rough and a few
crude and crass terms."
Aghdashloo began as a successful actress in pre-revolution
Iran. With the rise of the Islamic state and harsh religious
guidelines, her films were either censored or forbidden.
She fled Iran for London, where she earned a degree in
international law with the intent of first entering
journalism, then politics. But just at that time a friend
offered her a part in a play about the Iranian revolution,
and a second film career started. It led to work in Hollywood
where, after a stunning performance in the 2003 film "The
House of Sand and Fog," she was nominated for an Oscar for
Other film credits have included "The Exorcism of Emily
Rose," "American Dreamz," "X-Men: The Last Stand" and
"Nativity Story," in which she played Elizabeth.
A special memory of the latter was a screening before a large
audience at the Vatican, after which the cast members present
had dinner with then-Archbishop John Foley, now a cardinal,
who surprised her by his knowledge and discriminating
insights into fine cinema.
A small regret she has is that she did not come to America as
a very young actress, when mastering English without an
accent would have been easier and more roles would have come
She has gradually come to realize her appearance in
meaningful films that protest injustices really does more
good for the promotion of human rights than she could have
done as a journalist.
Although Aghdashloo jumped at the chance to appear in "The
Stoning of Soraya M.," several actors turned down the
journalist's character before Caviezel accepted. They were
afraid of possible retribution against their families for
appearing in a film that might be seen as critical of radical
Aghdashloo has had threats made against her life because of
her work, she acknowledged, but that will not deter her.
"It's not about my safety, my image, at the end of the day.
There are 10 people in Iran on death row waiting to be
stoned. When I think about one woman waiting there, I would
rather go with her than with my safety.
"None of this happened in the old regime under the shah. We
have been drawn back 1,500 years," she said. "Women had
rights under the shah. This isn't Islam; it is superstition
Will conditions change in Iran?
"I'm naturally an optimistic person and happy with small
things," Aghdashloo said. "I sincerely believe people will
choose peace over violence. Iran is at the dawn of