Movie Review: Rosewater (2014)
by Alan F. Zundel
As the debut of a newbie screenwriter/director, “Rosewater” is impressive. That writer/director is not an unknown, though, he’s the famous comedian Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show.” Stewart does a creditable job, but don’t expect many laughs. For this is, like many a first-time indie film, an earnest politically-conscious drama.
Based on a true story as recounted by journalist Maziar Bahari in his book “Then They Came for Me,” it tells of Bahari’s ill-fated trip back to his Iranian homeland to cover the 2009 Presidential election. Bahari’s digital recording of riots following the disputed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lands him in an Iranian prison, where a brutal interrogator wants him to confess to being a spy.
It’s an inherently interesting tale and Stewart does well in making the Iranian political landscape easy to comprehend, but the film lacked the suspense that would have elevated it from being a good political drama to a great one. Certainly the potential is there, as Bahari’s situation is truly harrowing, yet somehow I didn’t feel the tension of it.
The movie starts with Bahari’s arrest in his mother’s home, which immediately makes you concerned about what will happen to him. It then backtracks to his decision to leave England and his pregnant wife to take the news assignment. As the story progresses you see him struggle to maintain a professional demeanor while things start to spin out of control.
All of this is a longish prelude to the heart of the story, which is Bahari’s time in prison as he quickly realizes the gravity of his plight. His interrogator is not interested in Bahari’s explanation of freedom of the press in the West, he is only interested in getting a confession. Days in solitary confinement roll by as Bahari wrestles with his convictions (symbolized by imaginary conversations with his late Communist father) and his interrogator, a man who smells of sacred rosewater, becomes increasingly menacing.
Done right, the tension would have built until Bahari reaches a breaking point, a turning point in the story which leads to an internal change in the character. Yet it did not feel suspenseful, the breaking point seemed to come too easily, and the change shifted tone in a manner that was jarring.
I cannot quite put my finger on what was missing, but I think it was a combination of factors. The lead performance of Gael Garcia Bernal is sympathetic, and he convincingly portrays confusion and worry, but the sense of desperation he should have does not come across as well. The character also looks the same over days and then weeks, his facial stubble and hair never growing, so the length of time he is in prison has no visual reinforcement.
Stewart’s screenplay is well constructed and his direction workmanlike, but not especially creative. The scenes in prison didn’t have escalating pacing or subtle disorienting changes of camera angles to make the audience feel increasingly off balance along with Bahari. The lighting is often flat, with little use of shadow for effect.
None of the aforementioned is enough to sink the movie, but taken together they conspire to drain its potential for suspense.
Not that the movie failed to hold my interest. For this I mostly credit Kim Bodnia, who played the role of the interrogator. Far from being the remote blank-faced cliché of many a movie, Bodnia’s face is a perpetual kaleidoscope of intriguing emotions: weariness, ambition, disappointment, loneliness, confusion, anger, prurient curiosity—the character was to me the most multi-faceted and thus most human of all of them.
Many a drama has a villain with a meatier role than the main character, but you don’t want your villain to be more human than your protagonist. That too may have detracted from the desired effect.
If you are simply curious about Jon Stewart’s first foray into screenwriting and direction, I’m not sure you’ll find what you’re looking for here. But if you like politically oriented dramas as I do, this is one of the better ones out there. Just not one of the best.
I look forward to seeing what Stewart comes up with next.