(photo credit: PR)
Written and directed by Jon Stewart With Gael Garcia Bernal, Dimitri Leonidas, Kim Bodnia
Running time: 107 minutes
Rating: R for language and violence
In English with Hebrew subtitles
We’re accustomed to seeing Jon Stewart’s irreverent side on his comedy/news commentary TV program The Daily Show, but with Rosewater, his feature-film directorial debut, he displays his capacity for reverence. While there is some playful humor throughout the film, most of the movie, which is based on the true story of Newsweek reporter Maziar Bahari’s arrest and captivity in Iran in 2009, is a literal-minded docudrama that tries to draw an inspirational message from Bahari’s story.
The movie opens with a poem in Farsi that is a metaphor for oppression and redemption but then switches to English, which diminishes its authenticity but does make the movie more commercial.
Gael Garcia Bernal, the extraordinarily handsome Mexican actor whom you may remember from such films as The Motorcycle Diaries, Y Tu Mama Tambien, No and Amores Perros, plays Bahari as a low-key film buff living in London who is devoted to his pregnant wife but still feels ties to Iran, his homeland. Only his mother (Shoreh Aghdashloo, who was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in The House of Sand and Fog) is left there. His father (Haluk Bilginer), who spent years in prison under the Shah, and his free-spirited sister, Maryam (Golshifteh Farahani), whose love of the arts inspired Bahari and who was imprisoned by the Islamic Republic for six years, are both dead.
On assignment from Newsweek, he returns to Tehran to cover the 2009 elections and is caught up in the feeling of hope that swept the country in the run-up to the vote, when it seemed as if the more moderate challenger, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, might topple the incumbent Ahmadinejad.
Conveniently, the taxi driver who picks him up at the airport, Davood (Dimitri Leonidas), is an active member of the Green Wave movement, which was pushing for greater openness in Iran. Davood introduces him to a group of activists who get inspiration from what they call Dish University, satellite dishes that bring international television and the Internet to the citizens of Iran. At first Bahari hedges, hesitant to film anything that might get anyone into trouble with the government.
But Davood challenges him, asking why he won’t take footage of people who are not afraid to show their faces, and this emboldens Bahari to film the activists and the government crackdown that followed the rigged elections.
After the elections, Bahari, accused of spying for the West, is imprisoned for months, kept in solitude, interrogated daily and beaten. His chief interrogator, Javadi (Kim Bodnia), whom Bahari thinks of as Rosewater because his cologne smells of that scent, is not a common thug but a serious man, whose job is to intimidate and break prisoners. Javadi uses the fact that Bahari did a Daily Show segment as proof that Bahari is a spy.
Eventually, Bahari makes a false confession, as virtually everyone in Iranian prisons is forced to do, but he doesn’t lose hope. In one scene, he tells Javadi wild tales of about orgies in Fort Lee, New Jersey – which somehow is exactly what his interrogator wants to hear. Whenever Bahari is down, he fantasizes that his sister or father are by his side, telling him not to lose hope. Their memory is all he needs to keep up his spirits, and instead of attempting suicide, which he considers for a moment, he dances around the cell to Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love.” Eventually, due to international pressure, he is released.
It’s hard not to compare this movie to Sepideh Farsi’s recent Red Rose, which is also a look at the Green Wave movement. The characters in Red Rose are as freespirited as those in Rosewater, but it’s clear that they can’t just dance away the oppression. Some of the hundreds still held in prison may be keeping up their spirits, but it hasn’t gotten them released, and others have committed suicide.
Like those Holocaust movies that want to send us out of the theater with a happy feeling by focusing on one person who escapes a concentration camp, Stewart seems to want to say that love will conquer all, just don’t let them get to you. That’s a nice feel-good sentiment, but it’s not the whole story.