Rosewater (United States, 2014)

November 16, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Rosewater Poster

Jon Stewart takes the true story of Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari, who was held captive and subjected to deprivation and interrogation in Iran for 118 days during 2009, and injects elements of wit and humor into an otherwise brutal tale. By detailing how Bahari was treated, Stewart is able to highlight the culture of paranoia and absurdity that led to his capture and torture. There are times when the worldview embraced by the Iranian interrogators veers so far from reality that it almost seems as if a satirist was scripting events. Ultimately, however, it's the psychological match between Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his chief nemesis (Kim Bodnia), known only as "Rosewater," that keeps the viewer engaged.

Rosewater is a hard sell. Most movie-goers aren't interested in seeing a film about a man held captive and tortured in an Iranian prison. Even though Stewart keeps the tone surprisingly light at times and limits the amount of physical violence, this is a fundamentally unappealing subject. It's also not a "weighty" enough movie to make much of an Oscar push. There are some nice performances but ultimately this is a middling film that doesn't do enough to distinguish itself in any of the categories the Academy values.

Rosewater gets mileage out of autopsying the absurdity of the allegations against Bahari and the ways in which his interrogator doggedly pursues them. Rosewater wants nothing less than a signed confession. The film depicts a deeply dysfunctional system of "justice" where suspicion and xenophobia are defining traits. The Iranian-born Bahiri becomes a target after conversing with an actor playing a spy in a skit from Stewart's The Daily Show. The Iranians believe this to be a genuine encounter (or it suits their purposes to pretend it's real); this results in Bahiri's arrest when he is in the country covering the 2009 presidential election.

Most of his torture isn't physical. There are a few scenes in which he suffers beatings but he's never subjected to waterboarding or other extreme activities. The primary tactics used against Bahiri are isolation and a variation on the good cop/bad cop routine (one day, he's offered fruit; the next, he's given rice crawling with ants). He isn't permitted contact with the outside world and is led to believe that his aging mother, Moloojoon (Shohreh Aghdashloo), and pregnant fiancé, Paola (Claire Foy), have abandoned him. Psychological tactics prove effective but they also offer a means by which Bahiri can fight back because, unlike in many fictional movies, his interrogator isn't a bastion of ideological integrity. One of the most fascinating segments of Rosewater comes when Bahiri identifies Rosewater's weakness (he has an obsession with sexual perversion and pornography) and uses it against him.

Bahiri attains his freedom because of outside pressure brought to bear by his wife, Newsweek, and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. The terms of his release are ironic: he is expected to spy for the Republican Guard once he returns to London. Desperate to leave, he readily agrees although he has no intention of following through.

This is Jon Stewart's directorial debut; the talk show comedian has a handle on the material and conveys it clearly. There's nothing eye-opening about his style - Rosewater represents a straightforward account of Bahiri's tale, with flashbacks mixed in to provide background and conversations with the "ghosts" of his father and sister to explore his state of mind. Stewart was cognizant of the inadvertent part his show played in Bahiri's arrest and this may have been a motivating factor in his desire to make sure the story was told. Rosewater does not have blockbuster potential but it is more entertaining than one might expect from this material and it leaves an indelible impression about the Iranian justice system - something akin to the inmates running the asylum.

Rosewater (United States, 2014)

Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 2014-11-14
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1