www.timesleader.com News Sports Weather Obituaries Features Business People Opinion Video Contact Us Classifieds

A summer of substance on big screen

wire service photos

Two of this season’s most wrenching dramas are ‘The Stoning of Soraya M,’ left, and ‘My Sister’s Keeper.’

Are you suffering from blockbuster fatigue? Have you watched enough movies about mutton-chopped superheroes, Vegas bachelor parties and robot assassins? Are you looking for something a little more substantial?

Step right up for two of this season’s most wrenching dramas, now in theaters.

With outstanding performances and images impossible to shake, “The Stoning of Soraya M.” and “My Sister’s Keeper” prove that the hot-weather movies can be as compelling as their Oscar-season counterparts.

In “The Stoning of Soraya M.,” playing in limited release at the moment, the action follows the story of an Iranian woman (Mozhan Marno) who faces capital punishment for infidelity.

In “My Sister’s Keeper,” now playing locally, a mother (Cameron Diaz) will stop at nothing to keep her cancer-stricken daughter alive, even if it means endangering other family members to do so.

Not surprising, both films have their roots in real stories. When director Nick Cassavetes (“The Notebook”) stumbled upon Jodi Picoult’s 2004 novel about a mother who conceives a second child as a perfect genetic match for her terminally ill first daughter, the story resonated strongly with him.

“When I read the novel, I was very moved,” says Cassavetes, who has spent much of his life caring for his daughter Sasha, who suffers from congenital heart disease. “I started thinking about the movie as a simple story about how a family could deal with facing the death of a child, and I thought, ‘This is a story I’d like to tell.’ ”

For Diaz, the decision to sign up for “My Sister’s Keeper” was a simple one even though she’d never played a mother or a potentially unsympathetic character before. For most of the film, Diaz’ character lives in a gray area. She’s not a hero or a villain but a desperate woman whose terrible predicament impacts every decision she makes.

When the movie begins, Sara’s daughter Anna (Abigail Breslin) already has spent the first decade of her life as her older sister’s bone-marrow donor, but when Kate’s (Sofia Vassilieva) kidneys begin to fail, Anna refuses any more medical procedures and hires a lawyer (Alec Baldwin) to seek emancipation from her parents.

“Some people might think, ‘How does this mother justify doing this to this other child?’ You imagine that you’re going to feel (that’s she’s wrong), but I think what you find is that it’s impossible to judge this woman,” Diaz says. “I know I couldn’t judge her while I was playing her.”

Before and during the production, Diaz talked with volunteers from patients’ advocacy organization the Desi Geestman Foundation. The actress says she gained an understanding not only of how cancer affects children physically and emotionally but also how dealing with a sick child can give parents a strange kind of tunnel vision.

“Every parent that I’ve spoken to says the same thing: You do whatever it takes to save your child,” Diaz says. “You jump off a cliff, you step in front of a train. Whatever it is, you do it to keep your child alive.”

While “My Sister’s Keeper” deals with tough moral issues, “The Stoning of Soraya M.” serves as an exposť of a heinous form of punishment that’s still practiced in Iran to this day.

In the film, based on a true story, the accomplished Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo (TV’s “24,” “The Lake House”) plays Zahra, a villager who risks her life to speak to a French journalist (Jim Caviezel) about her niece Soraya, a woman who is framed as an adulterer by her philandering husband.

Sentenced to death, Soraya is taken to the town square, where she’s placed in a dirt pit up to her waist, with her hands tied behind her back. As Zahra looks on, Soraya’s father, husband and young sons take turns pelting her with rocks. Be forewarned: These scenes are among the most disturbing images ever captured on film.

Back in the late ’80s, Aghdashloo says, she was shown footage of an actual Iranian stoning of two young gay men and, since then, she’s been hoping for a film that would condemn the practice.

“As I watched that video, which had been smuggled out of Iran, I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, who, when and how are we going to shed light on this?’ I knew that it wasn’t the type of subject matter that producers would gravitate to easily. So when this script came to me, I was shocked. I told the director that I had been waiting for this movie for years.”

The movie was shot on location in Jordan, and the stoning took an excruciating six days to film. And as disturbing as the images are, Aghdashloo says the “ritual stoning” depicted in the film is “mild” compared with the real deal.

“In the stoning I watched, it took almost an hour for the young men to die,” she says. “They were bombarded by stones, but they were still moving their heads. Even with the absence of authority – there was only one mullah there and no guns -- people were still so anxious to go ahead with it and do it. Living under the tyranny of Islam for the last 30 years has turned some people into savages who clearly need psychiatric help.”

A native of Tehran, Iran, Aghdashloo worked for years as a stage and film actress before fleeing her country after the 1979 Islamic revolution. For years, her name was banned from mention in Iranian newspapers. But in 2003, when Aghdashloo nabbed an Oscar nomination for playing an Iranian exile in “The House of Sand and Fog,” the Iranian government instantly reversed its decision.

“Overnight, they started printing my name again,” she says. “Now, they call me ‘our Shohreh Aghdashloo.’ It was just amazing.”

Aghdashloo knows that “The Stoning of Soraya” is far from a typical summer movie but, she notes, the timing of the release is no accident. “We knew the Iranian election was taking place in June, and we decided to release the movie at the same time. For people who haven’t made up their minds yet about (the government), it will hopefully act as an eye-opener.”

The Weekender Go Lackawanna Timesleader The Dallas Post Tunkhannock Times Impressions Media The Abington Journal Hazelton Times Five Mountain Times El Mensajero Pittston Sunday Dispatch Creative Circle Media Image Map