No, I haven’t suddenly become obsessed with Iranian based cinema, it’s just the way that things have fallen out. Jon Stewart – Yes, that Jon Stewart – has never been one for getting behind the camera, but something seems to have clicked for him here. Probably it has to do with his own programme, The Daily Show, and its small role in the events of Mazier Bahari’s confinement in Iran, as well as the larger connection to be found with the terrible fate of a fellow journalist. In a story such as this – an intense prison drama with a limited budget and cast – the likelihood of a rookie director making a hames of things is never far away. So, could Stewart get beyond that inexperience, and make something worth watching?
Based on the 2011 book And Then They Came For Me, Rosewater recounts the experience of journalist Mazier Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) as he covers the 2009 Iranian Presidential Election in Tehran for Newsweek magazine. After making footage of protests available to the world, Bahari is arrested and imprisoned by the regime, facing constant interrogations and accusations of spying from a captor identifiable only from his rosewater scent (Kim Bodnia).
I actually went into this film with a serious misconception, that what I was about to watch was a documentary, or maybe a docudrama at most. Aside from the “based on a true story” background, I figured that Stewart wouldn’t have gone into full dramatisation territory. Maybe docudrama at the most. But no: Stewart elected to tell Bahari’s grim tale entirely through the lens of drama.
And, for the most part, it’s a decision that works very well. Stewart’s opening scene sets the stakes simply as Bahari is arrested by Iran’s totalitarian regime, though we do not learn until later just what for. The tone is sombre from the start, as a beautiful looking modern home, lived in by Bahari’s suffering mother, is torn apart by agents of the state, who accuse Bahari of enjoying “porno” films when they discovers Sopranos boxsets and arthouse movies in his room, before he is packed off into a car and driven away. From there Stewart chooses to jump back a few days to before Bahari’s, an Iranian-Canadian, arrival in Iran.
This journalist is presented in a manner that I would deem cliché and fantastical if it didn’t hit so close to the truth. He’s got the pregnant partner at home but volunteers for a mission to Iran to cover upcoming elections, despite the inherent danger. Bahari in Rosewater is inherently good, and little effort is put into demonstrating his flaws or negatives, though the narrative never goes so far as portraying him as saintly. What he is, is a committed journalist who gets caught up in a nightmare, and early scenes, while somewhat clumsily executed, led us to understand that there is more than just his own life at stake.
Bahari travels to Iran to cover the much disputed 2009 election, but he’s doing far more than that really. He spends his days seeking out the opinions of various Iranians on the state of their nation, ending ups spending most of his time with a group of would-be dissidents who want to see an end of Ahmadinejad’s Presidency. But beyond all of that, there is his mother, still living under a cloud of sexist patriarchy, and the memories of his dead sister and father, both imprisoned at different points by Iranian governments for subversive political ties and views. Bahari is a stranger, in many respects, to his ancestral homeland, and that isn’t hard to see. The ghosts are everywhere for him, and he stands apart from other Iranians. He has a quest to undertake in Tehran this time, and a family history of problems with authority is ingrained in his own consciousness.
He’s also there, as stated, to help create a more accurate perception of Iran. In an early scene he upbraids an ignorant British journalist on his lack of understanding for the more hardliner Ahmadinejad supporters, who are easily portrayed as ignorant, fearful lower class people, when the reality is far more complicated. Later, he interviews various people: young activists of great political and religious fervour, divided over their support for two Presidential candidates and the country’s future. For one side, the cause is as much about despising America and western culture as it is about Ahmadinejad. For the others, it’s about a long awaited change in their fortunes, and grubbily grasping at every last bit of western media and entertainment they can get their hands on. This section takes up most of the first half of the film and is a marked contrast with the rest, signified by dusty streets, angry crowds, and a toppling religious oligarchy straining to keep the rebellious sentiments of its citizens in check.
The narrative weaves through these moments well enough, with Bahari largely just an observer. Only on a few occasions does his presence get pushed more directly into the story, such as when he is questioned about his willingness – or unwillingness – to film behaviour that could land people in trouble with the government. There is an inevitable positivity to the depiction of the protestors that is, perhaps, understandable given the nature of the story being told and the people telling it. The government is undoubtedly a big bad guy in Rosewater.
That government is mostly a distant, overshadowing thing in the first half of Rosewater, so that when its agents arrive to take Bahari away – introducing themselves with an ominous “We are here now” – it’s all the more creepy. From there, Rosewater largely becomes a very different beast, a political prison drama, marked almost solely by the evolving interaction between a desperate and dehumanised Bahari and his anonymous interrogator, a gruff government middle-man thug.
Everything is different in the latter half, the streets giving way to plain cells and drab clothing. Never ending interrogations begin, that proceed in rapid montage fashion for the most part. They dance a fine line between ridiculousness – using Bahari’s appearance on a Daily Show segment as “proof” that he is a spy for the west – and deadly serious. The physical violence against Bahari is limited, and much worse is the psychological game played upon his mind by his captors, seeking to confuse, insult, demean, humiliate and crack him open, and all in pursuit of a flagrantly false “confession” of wrongdoing against the state.
The resulting drama comes from two sources. The first is seeing whether Bahari will be able to stay true to his convictions and hold out, perhaps hopelessly. He see’s visions of dead families members, including the father imprisoned by the Shah for being a communist, supporting them in his own way. Bahari talks to them, in sequences that could be construed as both touching and as the signs of mental collapse: they provide an outlet for Bahari’s internal debate over the worthwhileness of not simply doing as he is told, if it gets him out of the situation alive and back to his family. The father, an entrenched political activist, encourages resistance at all costs, while the visions of his sister are more overtly sympathetic. Between them and some other, crucial scenes of Bahari’s life in prison and the search for human comforts and relief, the story of the journalist in confinement is engaging and moving. There is less fear that Bahari will break and make a false confession – because who in their right mind would consider it a legitimate one – and a more a worry that the freedom loving and caring man from the first half of the film will be left a broken shell.
The other source of drama is “Rosewater” himself, about whom we only learn a precious little, but is very important to the presented narrative. He’s a frustrated, repressed individual, told to take it easy with the physical aspects of the interrogation, and swaying rapidly between terrifying and reasonable with the other. The back and forth between him and Bahari has to be solid for the film to succeed, and I think it is: there is a great underlying tension to their scenes together, as we fear an explosion of violence just as much as we hope for some form of rapprochement between them. Bahari pegs his captor as a direct symbol for much of what is wrong with modern Iran: subservient, unimaginative, trapped, and lashing out at innocent people.
I won’t spoil the ending, though even viewers with no foreknowledge of the events in question will probably be able to guess how this story concludes long before it actually does. That’s not an issue though: that ending is still a satisfying one in many (see below). Rosewater, generally, is a very contained story in its second half with what few glimpses we see of the outside world being very spare and very affecting when they do come up (not unlike Gett). It’s a jarring turn from the opening half, and perhaps the film might have been a bit better, more stream-lined, if it had chosen to give more time to its prison section over the other stuff, which is largely inferior to the confinement tale. But Stewart has come up good in his adaptation of And Then They Came For Me’s story at the very least, and other parts of the production aren’t bad either.
On the acting front, we don’t have a whole load of principal players, but that’s just fine. Bernal is understated but decent: his Bahari is a simple soft spoken guy who has no major negatives to him, without being a martyr completely. He’s relatable, by virtue of the fact that the performance is down to Earth and without too much aggrandisement. No heart wrenching monologues or grandiose statements here really, just a guy left alone in a cell, forced to talk to the spirit of his dead father to work through his own problems. Bernal captures the increasing dread and psychological breakdown that takes place in the prison very well, and Bahari’s humanity, that central issue in a state and place where it appears to be of no consequence to many, is also to the fore.
His counterpart, “Rosewater” himself, is Kim Bodnia, the other cast member of real note, and I found him quite enjoyable too. His was a more difficult role really, bringing life to this repressed, frustrated man, who has to play the savoir and the villain for Bahari’s benefit while in prison. Rosewater is a pathetic specimen of a man really, and Bodnia brings that to the fore in his interaction with superiors and with Bahari. Bahari is more than just a subject of interrogation to him, he’s a glimpse of a life beyond the walls of his own humdrum existence, and Bodnia captures that silent desperation very well.
The rest of the cast are mere supporting players to the other two, never really given all that much time or material with which to make a lasting impression. Shohreh Aghdashloo is probably the standout, as Bahari’s put upon mother, but even she only has a few moments in which to look aggravated about the police presence in her home, while Dimitri Leonidas, as the chief contact Bahari has with the opposition, is almost a caricature of a young revolutionary. This is a two-hander film for the most part, notwithstanding the first half that meanders around with a few other players for a while.
Stewart doesn’t try to do anything too flashy behind the camera. Early on, Bahari’s narrated account of his family’s experience in Iran as he walks to the airport is illustrated by their images showing up on the walls beside him, which later turn into more tangible figures inside the prison, and that was a nice touch. But nothing else really jumps out at the viewer. There is a good integration of standard camera work and “live” representations of Bahari’s own recordings, and a decent contrast is found between the visual style of the first half and the second half. But there are moments that might make you roll your eyes too, like Stewart’s tribute to the power of social media during the protests, a little too on the nose, or the final shots, which were rather insipid.
The script is a bit better. When it wants to be serious, it gets serious, such as in Bahari’s realisation that his own “weapon” – the camera – is more potent than anything that the protestors have, yet he frequently fails to use it properly. Later, he carries on some interesting conversations with the vision of his dead father, illustrating the differences in their world views, even as you see the similarities emerge. Bahari goes through some torturous mental experiences in prison, but his voice and character stay on track throughout. And, it being Jon Stewart, there are also great moments of rather black levity: when confronted with the perceived smoking gun of the Daily Show interview and accused of espionage (where he spoke with Jason Jones, who was pretending to be an American spy in the country), Bahari can only say “What kind of spy has a TV show?”. It goes over his captor’s heads, as a lot of things do, like the identity of playwright Anton Chekov. Later, it’s also amusing to see Bahari play on his interrogators ingrained repression, manufacturing lurid details of trips to foreign places, like the semi-mythical (in Rosewater’s eyes) New Jersey.
Some brief spoiler talk follows
-It’s interesting to read Stewart in interviews about this production, talking about the sense of collective responsibility he and other Daily Show people had over Bahari’s fate. He’s careful not to take on too much guilt, but you can see why this project was so important to him. If The Daily Show had never interviewed Bahari, he might not have ended up in prison. Maybe.
-Bahari’s captors want a confession, and don’t want his face damaged during interrogation. When the confession comes, it’s almost a laughable moment, as Bahari is given nice clothes for a few minutes, gives a statement that screams duress, and then gets shoved back into his prison uniform. The sudden violence afterward killed the levity fast though.
-Rosewater’s motivations, if any, remain murky by the time that the credits roll. In the end he seems to be just a helpless government puppet, more imprisoned than Bahari was. For Rosewater, there can be no escape, because of his own willing aquissence to the regime.
-That sex talk was great though. That Rosewater would become so obviously entranced by a (fictional) description of a handjob spoke greatly about his own subjugation and frustrations in life, and tied in nicely to his earlier insistence that Bahari DVD collection was nothing but “porno”.
-The film reaches a tension climax as Rosewater fakes an execution, pulling the trigger on an empty gun next to Bahari’s head. I’m not sure the sequence was really required for the narrative, but did illustrate the growing impotence of the Iranians to actually destroy Bahari.
-That sentiment reaches its zenith with Bahari’s call to his wife, an interrogation tactic that backfires spectacularly on Rosewater, and essentially signals the end of his efforts to break Bahari. It was great to see Bahari start laughing, and Rosewater’s complete inability to do anything about it.
-Those private moments in the prison – such as Bahari reaching out for sunlight in the exercise yard or his later dancing in his cell while awaiting release – were some of the film’s best sequences, illustrating the quiet, internal battle within Bahari for his sanity and sense of hopefulness.
-And that battle is won, brilliantly illustrated when Bahari laughs off the sight of a fellow plane passenger wearing a blindfold, an item that has haunted Bahari for the past few months. He remains, despite everything, the man he used to be.
Rosewater exceeded my expectations. I thought I might be getting an interesting, if pedestrian, documentary effort from a first time filmmaker. But instead I got a fairly riveting drama based on real life events, which managed to (mostly) pull off a duality in its narrative, soaring into truly great territory at times in its second half. A strong central pairing working with a great script puts Rosewater a few rungs higher than it might otherwise have been, and Stewart manages to deliver a competent direction in his debut effort. I’m not sure if he will get behind the camera again, but through Rosewater, I think that’s he shown himself capable of making some decent fare. In this, he’s made an affecting, powerful film, that tells us many important things about Iran even as it remains, by and large, a film about the resistance to oppression in a more personal way. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Open Road Films).