Movie Review: Rosewater  

Originally written for the UWM Post here:

Jon Stewart’s Rosewater is the world’s most optimistic torture story ever told. In his first outing as writer and director, Stewart crafts an oddly good humored retelling of Iranian-Canadian Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari’s capture. Bahari’s journey to Iran to cover the elections turns from a short assignment to a prolonged stay in solitary confinement. Bahari’s interview with a Daily Show correspondent and his friendliness towards dissenting political voices provides the excuse for his eventual detainment. Stewart goes out of his way to show the Iranian honesty in the paranoia; creating victims of the fearful.

Gael García Bernal as Bahari is center stage throughout the whole film. The optimistic journalist turned distraught prisoner is a tough enough character to play. Stewart adds to Bernal’s workload a few smirking humorous moments between Bahari and his torturer, Rosewater, played by Kim Bodnia. Stewart’s choice to emphasize the more humane aspects of their relationship while not downplaying the horrific beatings and mental anguish caused by this situation is a balancing act. But it really is a feat of acting for both Rosewater and Bahari’s relationship to work. Likable is not the word, but Rosewater is understandable. His irrational fear and ignorance about the outside world lends Rosewater a gravitational sadness. We are sort of sucked in to seeing him as a real human. Torturers are people too, which is definitely not what I was expecting to take from this movie.

The film works in two parts, divided by Bahari’s arrest and incarceration. Before his arrest we see him cover the elections. The film mixes real, on location traffic and news footage with the softer more human moments between Bahari, his mother, and the city’s hopeful youth. These young people who smuggle secular ideas into the country through pirated TV shows, movies, and art have the film’s admiration. A pervasive theme here is openness.

Ultimately, the scope and scale of this movie is small. It does not want to be anything other than authentic to the book it is based off of, delicate and truthful about the weird relationship between a torturer and his subject. In this it succeeds. The ending note of the film is a little boy with a cell phone doing exactly what Maziar Bahari was arrested for, and what Stewart has been championing in interviews about this film, “bearing witness” with his cell phone. The world will be a better, more open place if we tell the truth to keep the powerful accountable. In these loftier messages Stewart makes his optimism known but doesn’t let it overrun the human story at the center of this film.

A critique of most biopics or true story films is once again applicable here. What parts are fabricated, shortened, or sanded down to accommodate the film structure? It’s tough to tell but this film acts as a great advertisement for getting a fuller more in depth understanding of Iran and Mr. Bahari. I left the theater wanting to get the book it was based off of, Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival. Rosewater feels true, which is all that I can ask.

Rosewater is now playing at the Oriental Theatre and AMC Mayfair.


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