The ‘Rosewater’ Smell Of A Successful Debut (Movie Review)
Maziar Bahari: Sir, can you tell me why I’m here?
Circumstances surrounding a film can often impact the thoughts one has, when attempting to review/critique it. Obviously a film should stand on its own, but certain aspects always have an effect on one’s perception. I say this because it would be difficult not to talk about Rosewater without mentioning writer/director Jon Stewart’s role in all of this. He made the film, so obviously he has plenty of involvement, but the fact that his role was a minor factor in why the story that led to this film exists (however inconsequential The Daily Show may really be in all of this) is an interesting factor to consider. Keeping that in mind, based on the quality of this directorial debut from Stewart, I would say he found a way to be very respectful to his subject, in an effort to make a compelling drama that may not be what one would expect, when it comes to watching a film put together by the host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show.
As the host of a satirical TV show, which has a strong focus on politics and national media, Jon Stewart’s decision to take time off and make a film had me intrigued. What kind of film would he be developing? Given how I seemed to unintentionally avoid reading about what this Rosewater project was, I found myself surprised by the results. Rather than make some sort of biting satirical news-based drama, with crafty bits of dialogue and a certain political slant, Stewart has made a very earnest drama centered on a real-life event concerning the imprisonment of a journalist in Iran. The film has fleeting moments of humor, but it does focus on a character dealing with the challenge of holding onto his own spirit, in the face of isolated imprisonment and harsh interrogation.
What could have compelled Stewart to make a film like this? It is not accountability. I have come to understand that, as the film may show interrogators using a clip from The Daily Show as a factor that led to the arrest of journalist Maziar Bahari (portrayed by Gael Garcia Bernal), but really anything involving Bahari could have been turned around against him, in an effort to make him confess to his supposed crimes. In actuality, Stewart was clearly compelled by Barhi’s story, given his opportunities to speak with him, become closer to his story, and see what it means for a nation that still has imprisoned people suffering for unjust reasons.
Enough about Stewart’s role in this though, as there is still more to unpack regarding the film. The backdrop of this film is 2009 Iran, during the presidential election. Bahari has arrived in his home country with a goal of developing a story for his publication in regards to looking at the different sides via interviews with the populace. Bahari is detained, most likely for bearing witness to a riot, which he captured on camera. The majority of the film focuses on Barhari’s solitary confinement and the interrogation sessions he was subjected to, as his captors believed him to be a spy.
There are some clear positive aspects to note. The film is well-acted all around. Bernal is not of Iranian decent and I am certainly not the one to judge the effectiveness of his portrayal of someone of Iranian background, but as far as seeing a performance and getting a sense of the emotion on display, Bernal does a fantastic job of having the audience understand what his character is going through (the fact that the real Maziar Bahari was an advisor on the film certainly helps). The supporting actors do a good enough job as well in their roles, with Shohreh Aghdashloo standing out as Bahari’s mother, who gets the kind of character actress role that seems simple enough, but has a good amount of emotional weight that should not go underrated. Still, this is a showcase for Bernal’s talents from an acting standpoint and he delivers.
From a filmmaking perspective, Jon Stewart has surrounded himself with a very capable crew. The music by Howard Shore sets a fine mood. The film works around its minimal budget to portray what it can in sequences outside the prison, before settling for minimal location use from within Evin Prison. The editing and cinematography most certainly comes into play, as this is a film that must rely on its audience wanting to follow along with Bahari’s plight. In order to deal with his confinement, Bahari had imaginary conversations with his father and sister. Rosewater does a service to this aspect, while also framing and editing the interrogation scenarios to make us understand who is in control and watch how that power shifts. Basically, the film never seems out of control in relation to how the structure of the film could seem to isolated, much like Bahari. Instead, this is a film that has a lot of ugly tension, but is always engrossing. However Stewart envisioned this film, I would like to believe he was more than satisfied with the results, as I was impressed by the directorial flare he put on screen.
Speaking to the story structure and the writing, Rosewater certainly gets a lot out of the material in an effort to essentially create an uplifting drama, but pack it with tension and a very wry sense of humor. If anything, the only place I found the film to suffer was in the attempts to humanize the interrogators in a way that basically goes nowhere. One could argue about the way in which abuse is portrayed, but I found Stewart’s abilities as a screenwriter to be strong enough to convey a level of tension and frustration to work more than simply showing us what Bahari had endured in real life. It also helps that the film is able to find a way to eventually dial down the intensity, by matching it with the sense of hope that comes in the form of well-utilized humor.
There may be something more to say about how intensive this film is, when it comes to digging into how Iranian politics really played into everything on display in this film. To that, I can really only say that this feels like a story more about one individual, with true life events serving as a backdrop, rather than the core of the story. This is a film meant to pull audiences in on an entertainment-based level, rather than serve as a lecture, and I certainly responded in that manner.
Rosewater is not as much a ‘message film’ as some may have expected from a political pundit who handles news from a satirical standpoint, as it is an intimate drama, but it is quite effective at what it is trying to do. Gael Garcia Bernal turns in a strong lead performance, as he sits in the center of a film that puts his character in the most frustrating kinds of scenarios, where his attempts at reason are hardly recognized, as he battles to hold onto a sense of hope, while striving not to betray his beliefs. Jon Stewart does not buckle under the pressure to make the film he wanted either, as it shows he has promise as a director who can make a fine character drama, with elements of what it is that drives him in his own regular day job. As a result, I found myself engrossed by this film and happy to sing its praises. Rosewater was very fine, indeed.
Maziar Bahari: In their hearts they know they cannot win.