CANNES, FRANCE — As a producer of "The Passion of the Christ," Stephen McEveety knows how difficult (and also satisfying) it can be to make a controversial, sometimes brutal movie about religion and faithfulness.
McEveety, who two years ago left Mel Gibson's movie company to start a production and distribution company called Mpower Pictures, is building on that experience, and his new film "The Stoning of Soraya M." explores some of the most contentious beliefs of fundamentalist Muslims.
Like "The Passion of the Christ," McEveety's new movie is not for the faint of heart. "The Stoning of Soraya M." is adapted from the 1994 nonfiction of the same name by the French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam, who traveled to a small Iranian village in the mid-1980s and came across the story of an innocent woman stoned to death over concocted charges of infidelity.
The film, which is selling to foreign distributors at the Cannes market and will be released domestically on June 26, is framed by the arrival of the journalist (played by "The Passion of the Christ's" Jim Caviezel) into the hillside town of Kupayeh. The Shah of Iran has been overthrown as part of the Islamic Revolution, and there's a resurgence of fundamentalist religious belief, which has reached the men of Kupayeh.
"What happened here yesterday was wrong," a woman named Zahra ("House of Sand and Fog's" Shohreh Aghdashloo) tells the journalist, before she relates the tragic events of what has happened to her niece, Soraya (Mozhan Marno). Soraya's husband was tired of his marriage and wanted a younger spouse; rather than pursue a divorce, he concocted a scheme to get rid of her.
The fabricated charge was adultery, which under the town leaders' judgment was a crime not only against her husband but also Islam. The penalty was death by public stoning, and nothing Zahra or Soraya could do or say would stop it. "It is God's law," one person says, while the local mullah says, "With each stone you throw, your honor will return."
Director and co-writer Cyrus Nowrasteh spares little in depicting the execution, in which Soraya is buried to her chest with her arms bound, and pelted with heavy rocks from close range until she bleeds to death.
"We had to keep toning it down so that people could bear it," says McEveety. "It was far worse originally. But there were people who wanted us to tone it down even more than we did."
Yet McEveety felt it was critical to depict Soraya's killing graphically so that audiences would leave the theater outraged. "You can't tone it down too much, or you do an injustice to the crime," he says. But he doesn't want people to be angry at the Islamic faith; rather, he wants to stop stoning around the world, even as it is . What's more, McEveety wants people who see the film to cease being passive witnesses to injustice in any form.
"Another thing is that we're all guilty -- we don't stand up when we should," McEveety says. "I hope you will explore your own soul when you watch this film. Can you say that about many other movies?"
That's not the only question the film might raise.
In its depiction of deeply religious yet merciless Muslims, "The Stoning of Soraya M." risks creating a parallel argument about how Jews were shown in "The Passion of the Christ," which any number of critics considered anti-Semitic. When the film is shown at the Los Angeles Film Festival on June 20, it will be accompanied by a panel discussion about stoning and religious fundamentalism. And Mpower says it has been showing the film to leaders in the Islamic faith.
"It's more about the abuse of a religion than the religion itself," says McEveety, adding that much of the filmmaking team, cast and crew were Iranian Muslims. "It's their movie. I empowered them to tell their story.
"For me, it's about victims and the abuse of women, which doesn't only happen in Iran, but in our own backyards," he says. "There are so many lessons in this film that don't pertain to Iran or to Muslims. I think the movie is loaded with moral values. This has nothing to do with politics. This exists. People are stoned to death."
In test screenings, the movie has been received best by Muslim women, McEveety says. "There's no controversy because everybody agrees this is barbarous."
Still, the film was not for everybody. Following its premiere at last September's Toronto International Film Festival, domestic distributors showed about as much interest in "The Stoning of Soraya M." as they did with "The Passion of the Christ" -- hardly any.
So just as Gibson distributed his film on his own, McEveety will do the same with "The Stoning of Soraya M.," using Roadside Attractions to book theaters, help market the film and collect theater receipts, but with the privately financed Mpower footing the entire bill.
The only bidding war, as it turned out, has been from Middle Eastern distributors in Cannes.