PLOT: The true story of Iranian journalist Maziar Bahri (Gael Garcia Bernal) who, while covering the 2009 presidential election in Iran, was imprisoned for five months, with the government accusing him of being an American spy
REVIEW: It's fitting that Jon Stewart's directorial debut is the Maziar Bahri story. In 2009, in the midst of his assignment in Iran, Bahri was interviewed by Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones in a tongue-in-cheek segment. Horribly, when the authorities in Tehran got a hold of the footage, the comedy of the segment eluded them and they actually took it as evidence saying it proved Bahri was an American spy, allowing them to keep him imprisoned for months where he was brutally interrogated and forced to make a bogus confession for propaganda reasons.
While this no doubt sounds like a grim story, Stewart keeps the movie relatively upbeat, even during Bahri's darkest days, with him being brutalized by a sadistic interrogator (Kim Bodnia) whose unmistakable Rosewater scent gives the film its title. Bernal, while not Iranian, is terrific as Bahri, conveying his intelligence and good humor, which was a quality that no doubt saved his life. His mental sparring with Bodnia, whose character proves to be absolutely banal in his slavish devotion to the Iranian government party line, is sharply written and often funny. An early scene, Bodnia discovers Bahri's DVD collection, and calls THE SOPRANOS porno got a big laugh out of the audience, as did Bernal's sly baiting of him in the second half.
ROSEWATER is an especially enlightening film in how it shines a light on the people of Iran themselves, challenging the Western prejudice that it's a country of zealots. The Iran depicted here is very different, with him conveying that there's a majority of people there who want freedom, but can't get it due to the absolute corruption and zealotry of the people in power. Dimitri Leonidas, as the street-wise cabbie Bernal hires to escort him around the city is especially moving in his willingness to challenge authority with humor, attitude, and deeds even if it means sacrificing his freedom or his life. The infamous Daily Show interview itself is recreated with Jones playing himself, with this bit an interesting insight into how much the staff of that show sticks their necks out when covering a story, without coming off as too self-aggrandizing.
For a first film, ROSEWATER is pretty accomplished, although certain choices don't entirely work, with scenes of Bahri communicating with the spirit of his dead father while imprisoned feeling a little manufactured. Another scene which tries to convey how quickly an idea can spread on Twitter with hash tags and updates animated on-screen also feels a little on-the-nose, or too deliberate in the goal to give this an upbeat, inspiring feel. The story itself is solid enough that it doesn't need to be spoon-fed to the audience.
While not a jaw-dropping debut, ROSEWATER is nonetheless a very solid first film for Jon Stewart, who will no doubt make many more politically charged features in the years to come. He's already a very solid director, and it may very well be that within the next film or two, he'll deliver something extraordinary.
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