Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Jon Stewart
Stars: Gael Garcia Bernal, Kim Bodina, Dimitri Leonidas, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Haluk Bilginer, Golshifteh Farahani.
In 2009 Iranian born journalist Mazaar Bahari (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) returned home to Tehran to cover the upcoming elections for Newsweek magazine, and also to visit his widowed mother (veteran Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo).
But when the moderate liberal reformer Mir-Houssein Mousavi was beaten by the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, protests erupted. Many believed that the election result was rigged and that the process was not transparent. Bahari caught the protests and the violent police reaction on film, which he released to the world’s media. As a result the next day he was arrested by the Iranian police and accused of treason.
The authorities considered some of the classic Hollywood films he had on video with suspicion, and viewed the copy of EMPIRE magazine and a copy of The Simpsons as pornography. For the next four months, Bahari was held a prisoner in the notorious Evin prison, where he confined in a spartan cell, and interrogated by Javadi (played by Danish actor Kim Bodina, from the tv series The Bridge, etc), who was nicknamed Rosewater because of the distinctive cologne he wore. Bahari was threatened and coerced into signing a false confession and appearing on television denouncing American imperialism.
Rosewater is based on Bahari’s 2011 memoir titled They Came For Me: My Family’s Story Of Love, Captivity, And Survival, which detailed his experiences in prison. This story of an innocent man being persecuted by a repressive and paranoid Islamic regime offers up an earnest and well-meaning howl of protest at the injustice of Bahari’s treatment. But what should have been an important movie ends up being competently made, but somewhat dull. The biggest failing though is the lack of urgency that first time filmmaker director Jon Stewart, best known as the host of satirical news program The Daily Show, brings to the material.
Rosewater marks the directorial debut for tv host Stewart, who has a personal interest in this story. Satirical journalist Jason Jones interviewed Bahari on Stewart’s tv show, and this footage was subsequently used as evidence that Bahari was a US spy. In its exploration of geopolitics in the volatile Middle East Stewart plays it safe here. He fails to suffuse the interrogation scenes with any real sense of tension or menace, although he does bring some unexpected touches of humour to the material. Bahari spent most of his time alone in his cell, meditating, but Stewart lacks the technique and experience to make these scenes exciting, dramatic or even visually arresting. In fact some of these sequences seem a little repetitive.
The film offers some insights into contemporary Iranian society, its history, culture and politics, and the hypocrisy of its patriarchal society. Many of the populace covertly use technology and illegal satellite dishes to learn about the world outside their borders.
Stewart shows a strong affinity with his actors, and draws solid performances from his central cast. Bernal is charismatic, and delivers a good performance here, capturing Bahari’s fear and uncertainty, and finds inner reserves of strength as he tries to maintain his hold on his sanity while unsure of his fate. He brings a quite dignity and intelligence and self-deprecating humour to his performance. Bodina manages to make his tormentor both a nasty piece of work and a zealot but also somehow sympathetic.