Cinematic Releases: Rosewater

The true story of Maziar Bahari is transcribed to film in the release of Rosewater.

"Holy crap!!! Look at the size
of that ego!!!"
The directorial debut of comedian and The Daily Show front man Jon Stewart, Rosewater, is a missed opportunity indicative of that rare trapping of self-important egocentrism celebrities fall into when they elect to briefly shelve their multimillion dollar salaries to make way for a new kind of stand-up routine: human rights activism.  When U2’s Bono and a gaggle of equally conceited pop icons gathered together for a Kumbaya in the form of covering Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On post 9/11, beneath the veneer of selflessness being purported also emerged a stench of narcissism.  A close kid cousin to Angelina Jolie’s equally heavy handed act of raising awareness, In the Land of Blood and Honey, Rosewater tells the true story of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his 2009 incarceration at Iran’s Evin Prison.  

Based on his memoir Then They Came for Me, Bahari was detained and held in solitary confinement for 118 days, where he was blindfolded, interrogated and tortured due to an interview he gave about the forthcoming presidential election.  Bahari’s nameless captor (played by the ever brilliant Kim Bodnia) eventually gained the title Rosewater due to a certain smell Bahari says he had about him. 

Unlike Bahari’s own autobiographical documentary account of the ordeal, To Light a Candle, the Jon Stewart film bears the distinction of Hallmark Television competence.  In other words, as a film, while not outright bad it reeks of mediocrity when it isn’t treading dangerously close to the slacktivism of Kony 2012.  Although the casting of Spanish actor Bernal and Nordic-noir heavyweight Bodnia as Iranians can’t help but raise a few eyebrows (at least it isn’t John Wayne in The Conqueror), that’s not to say the enterprise is poorly made or acted.  Formerly Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn’s leading man in Pusher and Bleeder, Kim Bodnia brings a natural gusto and intimidation to the role of Bahari’s interrogator.  If Rosewater in fact wants to make a difference in the world, it should at least bring more international attention to Bodnia’s abilities.  Gael Garcia Bernal is dependably solid in the otherwise miscast role of Bahari, lending a star charisma to the sterilized proceedings. 

"Now is the time when I spank you.
You've been a very bad boy."
Besides being a film about “issues” with endless superimpositions of documentary footage of genocide in Iran, Jon Stewart also makes room for warming up to David Fincher, with CG-rendered titles and videos projecting off of buildings in the city ala the opening credits of Panic Room.  You see, Mr. Stewart isn’t just that guy on The Daily Show, he’s a bona-fide artiste with all the tools at his disposal whether he knows where and when to use them or not.  Then there’s that age-old cliché of prison madness resulting in an imaginary friend or relative the battered and helpless Bahari speaks to regularly within the walls of his cell.  Other movies more or less get this surreal technique right, infusing the hallucinations with emotional weight to evoke despair, but in the case of Rosewater, it feels like a forced prop that further works to cripple whatever dramatic impetus Jon Stewart was hoping to achieve.  

Stewart has employed the best talents in the business for his first feature, including hiring Requiem for a Dream editor Jay Rabinowitz for some funky jump cutting and clever dissolves.  Howard Shore provides a dependably “moving” score to underline Bahari’s journey to Hell and back.  But what could and otherwise should have been a profoundly affecting tale of endurance fighting against oppression ultimately proves to be a stale plateau that disappointingly underwhelms and sheds more light on Stewart’s pride than prejudice against civil injustices in the Middle East.  

-Andrew Kotwicki