Gael García Bernal as Maziar Bahari
Shohreh Aghdashloo as Moloojoon
Kim Bodnia as “Rosewater”
Claire Foy as Paola
Jason Jones as himself
Dimitri Leonidas as Davood
Haluk Bilginer as Baba Akbar
Arian Moayed as Hamid
Amir El-Masry as Alireza
Directed by Jon Stewart
The imprisonment of journalist Maziar Bahari (Bernal) amid the tumultuous 2009 Iranian Presidential Election is prime ground for investigating the true evil of totalitarianism, and Jon Stewart’s “Rosewater” takes that task to heart in its gripping if flawed presentation.
Weighed down by warring instincts towards earnest emotion and absurdist comedy, Stewart’s impressive directorial debut never quite finds the balance it needs to make those opposing goals work, instead bouncing back and forth between them. The oscillation never quite overturns the applecart, though it threatens to, but it does blunt some of the film’s best elements particularly during the draggy midsection. Much of that is unavoidable due to the reality of the situation — Bahari’s hundred plus days in isolation — leaving the filmmakers scrambling for some way to have its character engage anyone other than himself, a scramble it never quite gives up once the flashbacks end and the torture begins.
Though it has no real answer for dealing with that problem, “Rosewater” still manages to unfold most of its story with cinematic grace and a refreshing lack of exposition or diatribe as Bahari reflects on his tumultuous past with the country of his birth even as he becomes caught up in the youth movement behind reformer Mir-Hossein Mousavi and the unrest following Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election.
Using Bahari, or more accurately Bahari’s camera, as an observer of both the paranoia within the government and the drive for freedom of expression without, Stewart draws clear view of modern day Tehran without demonizing its people including its rulers, who are more objects of pity than anything else. It also leaves Bahari as something of a cypher early on, with little really known about him except that his father and sister were also held as enemies of the state at one time, partly because he is separated from most of his family and friends except for his aged mother (Aghdashloo) and has no one to really communicate with.
Most of the other individuals he encounters, friend and foe alike, are too wrapped up in their own agendas and spend most of their time talking at him, not with him, leaving both character and filmmaker at a loss to connect him with the audience. It is a testament to the strength of Bernal’s performance that he is able to make as much of Bahari — an introspective man to begin with — as he is, particularly the difficult inner conflict of Bahari’s intellectual understanding of what is happening to him and his emotional inability to comprehend it.
It’s not really until Bahari’s arrest and extended confinement that he is able to come to life as a person despite seldom having anyone to play against except for his torturer — the titular Rosewater, so named for his particular choice in cologne — who becomes Stewart’s touchstone as well, describing him as a henpecked, undersexed husband trapped by the same forces of middle class, white collar existence which he sees ensnaring the denizens of the decadent west. Making note of the ridiculous inherent in modern life is Stewart’s stock in trade and the Kafkaesque nature of Bahari’s arrest and interrogation, much of it surrounding a Daily Show interview and his collection of Western pop culture, is a meal the director makes much of. Whether Bahari is keeping himself sane dancing to music only he can hear or distracting his interrogator with stories of the sexual deviancy of New Jersey, the precision with which Stewart uses humor to enhance drama is both unerring and never out of synch with its totalitarian surroundings. And yet it is also within the prison that “Rosewater” finds its bleakest depths not just within its narrative, but as one.
The great difficulty of conflict built on isolation and boredom and repetition — the true torture Bahari faces as the days and questions and beatings meld together into a never-ending whole — is relating the truth of it to an audience without afflicting them with it. While Stewart realizes he can’t just coast on his natural aptitude with humor and achieve the effect he is after, he seems less sure when floating on the water of earnest reflection. There are some interesting attempts to get around the problem centering on Bahari’s increasing hallucinations of his dead father and sister who were once also guests of an oppressive regime for the sin of being communists, but they never quite work.
Part of that is because they are less characters than mouthpieces for just the sort of trite truisms (“Don’t give in” and “Use your enemies’ weakness against him”) the film spends so much effort avoiding the rest of the time. The result is a middle which drags desperately in search for a bottom until Bahari finally gives his captors what they want only to discover that will not free him either as he is not a person but a warning sign to the various groups the government sees trying to bring the country down, whether or not said groups (insofar as they actually exist) know who he is or not.
It’s a great set-up for the type of absurdist reflection Stewart perfects in other portions of the film and its inability to make use of it is one of the few missteps “Rosewater” makes as he tries to make some sort of conclusion out of real life, a subject which stubbornly resists such things. Left with nothing but his thoughts and regrets, Bahari must decide once and for all if he will allow the apathetic weight of totalitarianism to grind him down. Just as its subject does, “Rosewater” eventually comes out the other side and attempts to make sense of what has happened, and just as with its subject comes up with little more than ‘what happened, happened’ and life goes on.
As revelations go it’s not the most original, though to expect more is probably laying more onto “Rosewater’s” shoulders than it can realistically lift. Despite the few misses and a bit too much success in exploring the feelings of extreme isolation, Stewart’s frequently original outlook on the nature and cost of totalitarianism mostly avoids the pitfalls and clichés its brethren have fallen for and in its way, finds something such regimes fear more than all the student protests and comedy show interviews in the world — genuine truth.