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ROSEWATER (2014) review

November 17, 2014

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written by: Jon Stewart
produced by: Scott Rudin, Jon Stewart and Gigi Pritzker
directed by: Jon Stewart
rating: R (for language including some crude references and some language)
runtime: 103 min.
U.S. release date: November 14, 2014

 

Back in March 2013, political satirist and comedian Jon Stewart announced that he would be taking a break from hosting The Daily Show to direct a movie. He had optioned the rights to write and helm an adaptation of Maziar Bahari’s 2011 memoir Then They Came For Me, which was primarily about the Canadian-Iranian journalist’s arrest and 118-day imprisonment while covering the 2009 Iran presidential election. It comes as no surprise to find Stewart making his directorial debut with a sharply focused political perspective.

“Rosewater” is an accomplished effort, providing a brief ground-level tour of the escalating climate in Tehran, before falling on the familiarities of an imprisonment story. Although it’s somewhat predictable, the films offers some surprises, both in tone and by two strong performances.

 

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Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) arrived in Iran from London on June 21, 2009 to report on the elections for Newsweek, where President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was up for re-election amid opposing candidates Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, both of whom promised a democratic future. Upon arrival, Bahari is befriended by charismatic cabbie, Davoud (Dimitri Leonidas), who escorts the journalist from his mother Moloojon’s (Shoreh Aghdashloo) home to various planned and impromptu locations. For eleven days, Bahari conducted interviews with the candidates, the locals (who feel the election is fixed) and one mock interview conducted by actor/comedian Jason Jones (playing himself) of The Daily Show, who dryly referred to himself as a spy and asked if Bahari was a spy as well. Bahari, knowing the satire of the show, redirected the talk by commenting on the commonalities of America and Iran.

Then Ahmadinejad is re-elected and as protestors began filling the street (in what would last 7 months), Bahari is in the thick of it with camera in hand, capturing unrest and violent abuse. When the footage is aired, Bahari is tracked down, his laptop confiscated and imprisoned for four months. During that time, he is often blindfolded and given one-on-one time with his interrogator, called a “specialist” (a magnetic Kim Bodnia), whom he calls Rosewater due to the interrogator’s scent resembling the hydrosol. During his stay at Evin Prison, Bahari is accused of being a spy due to a misunderstanding of The Daily Show interview and is repeatedly harassed by Rosewater.

Separated from his wife (Claire Foy), who is pregnant with their firstborn, Bahari begins to seek solace by engaging in conversations with deceased relatives, his father (Haluk Biliginer) and sister (Golshifteh Farahani), both of whom had experienced their own imprisonment due to their outspokenness against the government of their day.

“Rosewater” isn’t just “based on a true story”, it’s based on a familiar story. Maybe I’ve seen one too many episodes of “24” since 9-11 or more than a handful of narrative films and/or documentaries focusing on interrogations or imprisonments, but I began to feel a little jaded or desensitized while watching this film. It’s not that I didn’t feel for Bahari and his predicament, it’s just that, I knew he wasn’t going to die because he’s still alive. This is his harrowing story being told. He’s one of hundreds who’s experienced imprisonment by the Iranian government for illegitimate reasons, something that Stewart touched on near the end of the film.

 

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Knowing Bahari survived his ordeal and was reunited with his family, I was able to focus on the fascinating (at times, humorous) interaction between Rosewater and Bahari, as well as the choices in style and tone Stewart decided on. The film starts off with narration from Bahari, introducing us to his past and present for the first 20 minutes or so and eventually Stewart shows his audience that the process of voting in this election is no different then what we’re used to in America. As Bahari visits polling locations, Stewart is mindful to fix the camera on women placing their ballot in the box and then out in the streets to film groups of people in line to vote. It supports what Bahari had mentioned about the similarities between America and Iran, providing a relatable connection.

Once the revolution takes off, the screen is littered with hashtags and other social media fervor, showing how the images and actions of the region are spread globally. Meanwhile, Stewart immerses us in the sounds around the blindfolded Bahari, who flinches at the sound of any voice other than Rosewater’s. There is an interesting relationship between Rosewater and Bahari – the interrogator must keep the captor’s face intact for recorded video messages, relying on mental and emotional abuse, but we also learn that he hopes his work here earns him a promotion. Bahari benefits from being wiser, but still stunned by his capture, becomes increasingly mindful of what to say and eventually how to use his interrogator’s weakness to his advantage.

Their conversations gradually build to become something quite electric due to the engaging performances from Garcia Bernal and Bodnia. In a film that ultimately succumbs to repetitiveness, hitting the same notes of isolation and uncertainty over and over again, it’s these two performances that make the film something more than it actually is.

 

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RATING: **1/2

 

 

 

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