Monday, November 17, 2014

Movie Review: Rosewater

Directed by: Jon Stewart.
Written by: Jon Stewart based on the book by Maziar Bahari and  Aimee Molloy.
Starring: Gael García Bernal (Maziar Bahari), Kim Bodnia (Rosewater), Dimitri Leonidas (Davood), Haluk Bilginer (Baba Akbar), Shohreh Aghdashloo (Moloojoon), Golshifteh Farahani (Maryam), Claire Foy (Paola), Amir El-Masry (Alireza), Nasser Faris (Haj Agha), Kambiz Hosseini (Hassan), Numan Acar (Rahim), Jason Jones (Himself).

Four times a week, Jon Stewart goes on TV and finds humor in material both serious and ridiculous. His strength has always been in a common sense approach that cuts through all the bullshit that politicians spout off on a daily basis. In his debut film, Rosewater, he does something similar with material that would seem to be resistant to such humor. This is the story of Maziar Bahari, a journalist for Newsweek who returns to his home country of Iran to cover the controversial election of 2009. After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a landslide re-election, many in the international community suspected that the vote had been rigged – and thousands of Iranians went to the streets to protest. Bahari had met some of the young people who supported Ahmadinejad’s opponent, and also have worked to undermine the tight government regulations on information – by installing a bank of satellites on the roofs of their apartment building. It’s while with these young men, that Bahari shoots some footage of the protest – that includes a young man being gunned down in the streets. He gives the tape to another foreign journalist – who broadcasts for the world to see. It is then, of course, that the secret police arrest Bahari – and accuse him of being a foreign spy. For four months, Bahari is held mainly in solitary confinement, his only human contact is with his “specialist”, who he dubs Rosewater, for his scent. Rosewater subjects Bahari to a systematic campaign of terror – while there is actual physical abuse, it is the psychological abuse that hurts more – the constant threat of something worse about to happen.

This is serious material – and addresses some serious issues. While Stewart stops short of outright saying that the election was rigged, you can tell what he thinks. The film’s main subject is the censorship of journalists, and the use of fear as a weapon to silence the people. Yet, Stewart finds the humor in the movie right for its first scene – and while there is some harrowing stuff in the middle, Stewart never pushes things so far that the audience becomes uncomfortable, or terribly shocked – or loses their ability to laugh, and see the ridiculousness in what is happening – something Bahari loses only temporarily.

The casting of Gael Garcia Bernal as Bahari is somewhat strange – Bernal, after all is Mexican, not Middle Eastern. But what he brings to the role is that broad, goofy smile that he utilizes in every role, and makes Bahari instantly likable. He makes Bahari both funny, yet smart. He is a sympathetic character from the start. The other major character in the film is Rosewater, played by Kim Bodnia who can be terrifying at times, but who Bodnia and Stewart make more human than you would expect. He has his own pressures he is dealing with, that makes him push Bahari harder than he might otherwise. Stewart also makes him a subject that he can mock – he has no real understanding of Western culture, and doesn’t realize when Bahari is making fun of him, but takes everything seriously. It’s a fine performance.

As a first time writer and director, Stewart mainly plays it safe. There are stylistic choices littered throughout the movie that a more experienced director may not have made (an early scene of scenes from Iran playing out behind Bahari as he walks by numerous chain restaurants and stores for example). He never pushes Rosewater into truly challenging territory, or brings it outside his comfort zone.
Having said that, everything in the film is well executed by Stewart and company. It’s not the most daring film, but it’s still well made, well written, well-acted and well intentioned. It works well enough, that I would look forward to seeing another movie by Stewart if he choose to make one – but not well enough that I want him to give up his day job.  

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