‘Rosewater’: Serious film from a comedy host

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Starting in 1999, Jon Stewart has anchored “The Daily Show,” which is broadcast on the Comedy Central Network. The satirical faux news program sparkles with wit and originality. During Stewart’s tenure, the show garnered eighteen Emmys and a panoply of critical encomiums.

Last summer, Stewart took a leave of absence from the show and turned his attentions to making the film, “Rosewater.” It is inspired by a true story of the prison ordeal experienced by a former guest on Stewart’s show, Iranian-Canadian news reporter, Maziar Bahari, (Gael Garcia Bernal).

In 2009, Bahari was dispatched by “Newsweek” magazine to cover the presidential elections in his native Iran. The election pitted reformist candidate, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, against the incumbent, religious hardliner, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

A screen capture from the trailer to the movie "Rosewater" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEExQHYsOT4

A screen capture from the trailer to the movie “Rosewater” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEExQHYsOT4

Before the election, several polls found that Mousavi was way ahead and likely to win. However, government officials announced that Ahmandinejad had supposedly won a landslide with 62 percent of the votes cast. International observers  proclaimed the outcome to constitute a blatant electoral fraud. Outrage spread and angry protestors marched through the streets.

“Rosewater” starts off with a scene days after the election. Bahari is visiting his elderly mother, Moloojoon, (Shoreh Agdashaloo, the acclaimed Iranian actress, who departed the country following the 1978 Islamic revolution) in her comfortable Tehran home. While Bahari is still sound asleep in bed, members of the Revolutionary Guards barge into his room and turn it upside down. Then, they arrest Bahari as a spy and haul off to Evin Prison on the northwest outskirts of Tehran.

Ultimately, without benefit of a trial, Bahari spent 118 days there. The film revolves around Bahari’s cruel treatment in prison by Javadi (Kim Bodnia). The latter is charged with extracting a confession from the journalist. Bahari is blindfolded and does not know the name of his interrogator. So, Bahari dubs him with the sobriquet “Rosewater,” in recognition of the distinctive smelling body lotion that he wears.

Bahari is repeatedly blindfolded and beaten, fed rice with bugs crawling all over it, and subjected to psychological torture.  Rosewater is particularly adept at his practice of the latter. To create a sense of despair, he insists that Bahari’s mother and pregnant wife, Paola (Claire Foy) have forgotten all about him. According to Rosewater, Bahari will never be released from prison. Bahari will never see his soon to be born child. In a particularly chilling scene, Rosewater simulates an execution of Bahari, but uses an unloaded gun.

A screen capture from the trailer to the movie "Rosewater" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEExQHYsOT4

A screen capture from the trailer to the movie “Rosewater” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEExQHYsOT4

What is Bahari’s putative offense? The film reenacts a skit that appeared on the “The Daily Show.” In it, Jason Jones (portrayed by the real Jason Jones) is an American spy, who meets with Bahari in a Tehran coffee shop. Bahari dismissively denounces Ahmadinejad as an, “idiot.” He also vehemently disclaims the notion that the U.S. and his native Iran are enemies. Bahari points out that the United States and Iran share something in common. The leading foe of both countries is al-Qaeda. Of course, the sequence was a spoof. Nevertheless, Iranian officials cite it as proof positive that Bahari is himself a spy in collusion with that nefarious agent of Zionism, Jon Stewart.

Are the Iranian officials genuinely oblivious to the satirical nature of “The Daily Show” or are they feigning ignorance? Are they actually motivated by various other actions by Bahari? The journalist had been approached by Davood (a wonderfully spirited Dimitri Leonides) and hired him as a chauffeur. Through Davood, Bahari met and videotaped various dissidents, who opposed the Ahmadinejan administration.

To deal with the unbearable situation, Bahari imagines himself being visited by his beloved father, Baba Akbar (Haluk Bilginer), then his older sister, Maryam (Golshifteh Farahani). In the 1950’s, his Communist father had been arrested, jailed and tortured by the secret police of Shah Pahlevi’s secret police. In the 1980’s, his sister had suffered a similar fate at the hands of the revolutionary theocracy of Ayatollah Khomeini. Now, both of them are dead. Undaunted, Bahari imagines them as benevolent spectral figures, who visit him in jail and buttress his debilitated psyche.

After Bahari was released from prison, he co-wrote the bestselling book, “Then they Came for Me, A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival” with Aimee Molly. It chronicled Bahari’s time in Evin Prison.

Bahari subsequently appeared again on “The Daily Show” to discuss his experiences. He struck up a personal relationship with Stewart. Using Bahari’s book as a template, the television host was inspired to draft a screenplay and direct a movie based on it.

In his debut as a screenwriter and director of a feature film, Stewart demonstrates a surprising expertise. He jettisons the snarky attitude that pervades “The Daily Show” in favor of a more somber tone, appropriate for the subject matter of the movie. Stewart constructs a non-linear timeline and makes adroit use of flashback sequences. His narrative methodology of interjecting imagined characters as visitors to Bahari’s jail cell also enriches the film. Less capably handled, these techniques could have easily devolved into gimmickry.

The film assiduously avoids demonizing Rosewater. Rather than reducing him to a stereotypical villain, he is a fully fleshed out three-dimensional character.  Rosewater is simply a mid-level government functionary, desperately trying to placate his burly boss, Haj Agha (Nasser Faris). Rosewater is fraught with many personal vulnerabilities. The film depicts how Bahari recognized and exploited his tormentor’s obsession about sex in the West. Bahari then panders to this appetite by providing apocryphal descriptive details about it. This interjects a soupcon of dark humor into this otherwise bleak film.

Unlike most of the cast, Gael Garcia Bernal Bernal is already well-known to American audiences for his performances in a string of award-winning films.  These include “Y tu Mama Tambien,” “Amores Perros,” ““Motorcycle Diaries,” and “Babel.” Though Mexican born, Bernal is totally convincing as the Persian protagonist.

Kim Bodnia is a Danish native, ironically of Jewish parentage. As Bahari’s interrogator, he turns in a superbly nuanced performance. In this challenging role, Bodnia captures his character’s many endogenous conflicts.

Full of clever repartee and engaging characters, “Rosewater” is a thought provoking work.  It is hardly a film that one would expect from the host of late night comedy show. “Rosewater” affords Jon Stewart to demonstrate a heretofore undiscovered skill set. Perhaps, it provides a glimpse into a future career as a serious filmmaker.

“Rosewater” ***1/2 R (for language including some crude references, and violent content) 103 minutes

Film critic Nathan Lerner sees more than 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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