There is something deliriously awful about the dark. Taking away one’s ability to simply understand their surroundings for moments, hours, or even days at a time should be a soul-crushing experience by all accounts. And yet, when Maziar Bahari is forced time and again to don a blindfold during his 118 days of trials and tribulations underneath the Iranian regime in Rosewater, he never once seems to lose his perspective on the madness of it all—the light from the canary in the coal mine.
The difficult balancing act that Jon Stewart must find in his directorial debut is whether he’ll let the darkness or that inner-illumination dominate Rosewater. Ultimately, the resulting stalemate is a film that cannot be ignored, even if it can neither enthrall viewers one way or the other.
Based on the too tragic to be absurd story of the real-life Bahari, and his memoir Then They Came for Me, Rosewater is the very definition of a passion project, albeit one that might at least partially stem from the feeling of guilt. Bahari, who was born in Iran but as of 2009 lived in London with his pregnant wife while writing for Newsweek, had practically stepped off the plane when he met The Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones for a comedy piece. Bahari had arrived to cover the presidential election; The Daily Show was there to mock the inevitable charade of it.
And a charade it truly turned out to be when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was reelected by a margin so suspiciously wide that no amount of jokes could fill void left by the corruption. In the ensuing protests, and the violent reactions from government forces, Bahari made a difficult decision that is presented in Rosewater with a sense of self-aware destiny: he videotaped the violence. As the son of a self-professed communist who died for his beliefs when locked up for years by the Shah’s regime during the 1950s, and brother to a beloved older sister who was similarly arrested for her political beliefs in the 1980s by the Ayatollah, Maziar knew the fireball he held in his hand, but the outrage of political theft was too great.
The film’s story, which includes sparse flashbacks to Bahari’s youth and his home life in London, begins and ends in his involvement with a man Bahari calls “Rosewater.” The Iranian “specialist” (Kim Bodnia) that tortured Bahari for 118 days, both physically and psychologically, opens the movie by sprinkling the titular ointment on while coming to Bahari’s (Gael Garcia Bernal) childhood home. There, his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) is forced to make tea for the men she knows have come to take away her son. Soon, they’re carrying him to a detention center where everyday they accuse him of being a spy for the CIA, or the MI6, or Mossad, or whatever else catches their fancy. The starting point of their accusations? When he met with the “American spy” Jason Jones.
To be clear, the movie and all parties involved are aware that it was just one of the many straws the Iranian government desperately grasped at when arresting Bahari for daring to do his job by showcasing the protests, but it is surely a lightning rod for this movie’s existence, especially since the moment of Bahari’s crossing paths with The Daily Show is even faithfully recreated within the film. Indeed, the media as a whole plays a prominent role throughout the film.
As Stewart’s first movie, Rosewater ultimately shares much of the interests he has had as a comedian and late night social commentator for the past decade; the first act is a case study on the role of institutional media and 21st century social mobilization taking on a populist euphoria. These creative flourishes are the most surprising and intriguing of Stewart’s approach, which often has Bahari wistfully remembering his past, such as playing with beloved sister Maryam (Golshifteh Farahani) before her death, as seen by rear-projected memories that decorate a store window Bahari passes. Similarly, the role of Tweets, Facebook posts, and even dreaded cable news reports on the Iranian election float through the Tehran air around the movie’s Bahari like a stream of consciousness visualization of a TED Talk attendee’s daydreams. It is an effective trick that helps overcome the rather mechanical pacing and staging of the film’s first act, which centers on the Iranian election.
Stewart and the real-life Bahari, who wrote the screenplay with the director, obviously wish to accentuate the individuality and progressiveness of many Iranian citizens, adding nuance to a people easily mischaracterized as part of the “Axis of Evil” by certain American politicians and media personalities. This is showcased in folks like Davood (Dimitri Leonidas), Maziar’s cab driver who also becomes his one-way ticket into the student opposition movement living out life via “satellite university” (a rooftop of satellites that allow them to connect in to the unregulated worldwide web).
As a political message, the first 45 minutes of Rosewater is an illuminating and worthwhile peek into Iranian diversity, but the movie has all the political surge and energy for change as a social studies classroom. The narrative not so much propels itself forward, as it stumbles along, eventually falling into the hands of ‘Rosewater.’
However, once the movie becomes a two-man play between Bernal and Bodnia, the first glimpse of the creative spark Stewart truly covets is flamed alive by the two impressive actors. As much a dance as a four-month battle of wills between Bahari and his captor, both actors approach their scenes with a raw aggression, even if it is from the position of kneeling and begging for Bernal. Bernal does not depict Maziar as defeated for the most part, but as comically aware of the madness he’s fallen into; he’s the Greek choir of his own tragedy.
The result is Rosewater avoids staring into the abyss, because its version of Maziar Bahari mostly can look anywhere else with an anxious grin, permitting that Bodnia does not catch it first. There are moments of extreme cruelty, such as when Bahari is tricked into believe he’s being executed like a dog outside (the gun is empty), and is then immediately shown an image of the wife he’d leave behind if they did kill him; yet there are also moments of giddy ascension beyond his surroundings. One such grace note is when Bernal laughs not at his tormentor, but at the beauty of life after ‘Rosewater’ inadvertently revealed to Maziar that he would soon be having a baby daughter. No amount of physical punishment could take the bloom off that rose-colored news.
It is the strength of these two actors and the harrowing journey that the real Bahari went on that makes these sequences sing. Stewart’s direction and script tries to find the tune as well as it veers from the surreal—Maziar is visited in his cell by visions of his long dead father—and the decidedly Stewart-imbued amusing, such as when a large montage of the movie is devoted to Maziar lulling his specialist into the silence of a barroom drinking buddy with stories of “massage parlor” decadence he partook in around the world. These fabricated tales, created for the torturer’s own everyman levels of horniness, Bahari assured me last week are based on real events. Yet, the way that Rosewater’s New Jersey is the epicenter of sin and global debauchery felt entirely like Stewart to me.
Rosewater less transitions between these two extremes than it falls backward repeatedly into them. As a consequence, the film lacks the dread of its true story source material, creating an experience that is undeniably watchable due to its bizarre curiosity. Nonetheless, the final film is bemused rather than compelling, leading the mind to wonder if its approach is just another absurd aspect of the real story.