How many casual American moviegoers would be interested in "Rosewater" if an unknown Jon had written and directed it, instead of Jon Stewart, famous "Daily Show" host and first-time feature filmmaker?
Well, Stewart did direct "Rosewater," and even with its limitations, the film works. Stewart has serious, dramatically astute talent behind the camera, as well as (big shock) a sense of humor. He's telling his fictionalized version of the story of Maziar Bahari, a London-based Iranian journalist and frequent BBC contributor covering the 2009 elections in Iran for Newsweek. Shortly after appearing in a "Daily Show" segment titled, cheekily, "Persians of Interest," the reporter was arrested and tossed in a Tehran prison. Bahari happily avoided the fate of so many others who run afoul of fundamentalist regimes. He lived to tell his tale.
One particular and particularly funny moment captures what's appealing as well as a tiny bit false about many of the details in "Rosewater," based on Bahari's memoir "Then They Came for Me: A Family's Story of Love, Captivity and Survival." Played in the film by Gael Garcia Bernal, Bahari is being interrogated and smacked around by the Iranian functionary tasked with extracting information and a confession of spying for the CIA or some other foreign body.
The excellent Kim Bodnia plays the interrogator/torturer known to Bahari as Rosewater, after the cologne he wears, and in the scene in question, Rosewater starts losing it. He's upset that Bahari's wife (Claire Foy), safe in London, has been agitating for her husband's release. U.S. diplomats, including then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, have gotten involved. Rosewater, sputtering, orders Bahari to call his wife, to call her off. He pushes the phone at him. Under his breath he mutters: "And you have to dial 9 to get out."
Bodnia doesn't treat the line as a joke, which it is, which makes it all the funnier. Much of "Rosewater" is like that bit: inventive, well-paced and well-placed, even if it feels … what? Too perfect? A little glib? Why argue if it works? And yet reasonable, sympathetic people can argue.
Bahari's memoir pointed up the miserable comic absurdity of his confinement and questioning. Bernal's scenes with Bodnia anchor the picture, although no one's better than Shohreh Aghdashloo, the veteran actress who plays Bahari's mother. When Rosewater and his men arrive at her door to arrest her son, the averted glances and tense verbal back-and-forths between Aghdashloo and Bodnia feel true and honest.
In the interrogation sequences, Rosewater reveals himself to be hopelessly in love with his own fantasies of libertine Western ways. Early scenes in "Rosewater" reintroduce Bahari to Iran (the film was shot in Jordan) with the help of a brash motorcyclist (Dimitri Leonidas). The journalist is led to "Dish University," a hangout for Tehran's media-hungry progressives, named for the forbidden satellite dishes on the roof. After filming a protest march over the presidential election vote, one that turns into a bloody, bullet-strewn clash with troops, Bahari becomes a changed man, newly politicized, partly because he was affected by what he saw. And partly, too, because the (slightly artificial) progression from wide-eyed innocent to committed activist makes for a better dramatic setup.
Stewart was right to devote as much time as he does in "Rosewater" to the prison scenes. He handles everything outside that prison well, shooting with an unobtrusive hand-held camera for the most part. There are plenty of pure inventions in the movie, none more fetching than the shots of Bernal dancing to a Leonard Cohen song while in solitary confinement. Stewart's wryly observant qualities as a TV star serve him well in his feature film debut.
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