Not many films can balance a conversation about pertinent social issues while also cutting to the core of its central characters. Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, “Rosewater,” a fictionalized account of Canadian-American Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari’s four-month imprisonment and torture, touches on the repression of journalists by the Iranian government in a fast-paced and energetic manner.
Open Road Films
The film takes place in 2009, when Canadian-Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael García Bernal, “The Ardor”) travels to Iran to report on the presidential election and interview Mir-Hoissein Mousavi, the challenger to incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Bahari leaves behind London and his pregnant wife, Paola (Claire Foy, “Vampire Academy”) for what he promises will be a short visit. However, because of the contentious Iranian elections, in which Ahmadinejad was declared the winner before voting booths even closed, violent riots erupted in the streets protesting this injustice. As Bahari films the demonstrations, the movie cuts to Maziar Bahari’s actual grainy footage of the frenzied crowds and killings. After Bahari submits his videos to major news outlets, he is arrested and taken to Evin Prison.
After arriving at the prison, Bahari faces Rosewater (Kim Bodnia, “A Very Unsettled Summer”), his interrogator for the next four months. Because Bahari is blindfolded for most of their interactions, the only way he can recognize his interrogator is the strong smell of rosewater, with which Bodnia is often seen spritzing himself. Rosewater informs Bahari that he has been imprisoned for being a spy for the West. Evidence for his espionage includes an interview for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” in which he speaks to correspondent Jason Jones about the similarities between Iran and America while Jones jokes about being a spy. Rosewater, a dense and relentless government thug, believes it is a real conversation between secret agents. Thus begins Bahari’s four months in prison in which he is in solitary confinement, broken up only by psychologically and physically torturous visits from Rosewater.
Throughout his time in prison, Rosewater convinces Bahari that he has been essentially forgotten, when in reality, his wife and mother are spearheading an international campaign for his release. In response to this alleged abandonment, Bahari conjures the memories of his late father and sister. His father (Haluk Bilginer, “The International”) was imprisoned for his communist beliefs under the Shah’s regime, while his sister (Golshifteh Farahani, “Just Like a Woman”) was thrown in jail for rebel activities under Ayatollah Khomeini’s government. During his darkest hours, these fantasies of his family give him hope.
Many of the film’s shining moments come from the dark comedy that balances the heavy subject matter. Any Western source of entertainment, whether it be magazines, movies or a Sopranos DVD box set is automatically classified as porn by the government officials rummaging through Bahari’s belongings. During the interrogations, Rosewater fixates on Bahari’s sex life, highlighting his own deep sexual frustration. This leads Bahari to tell erotic tall tales, “massages of a sexual nature” within a “sexual playground” also known as the state of New Jersey.
The use of actual news footage and the frantic filming style give the movie’s visual approach the feel of a war documentary, allowing the audience to feel a part of the onscreen chaos. Stewart’s use of hashtags floating through the streets of Tehran effectively highlights the emphasis on social media during the pandemonium.
“Rosewater” forces its audience to come face to face with an oppressive government still imprisoning and torturing people. To illustrate the struggles of those who were not fortunate enough to be saved, the arrest of Bahari’s enthusiastic taxi driver, Davood (Dmitri Leonidas, “The Monuments Men”), conveys the continuing fight against the unjust imprisonment of innocent people. Though the product of a comedy legend with some moments of humor, “Rosewater” is a serious film that teaches about the political environment of Iran and press freedom.