By Mary Houlihan/For Sun-Times Media
“Rosewater” isn’t the film you’d expect from Jon Stewart, the comedian who is the driving force behind the fake news program “The Daily Show.” Wouldn’t an irreverent comedy with satirical political overtones be more his style? Instead, Stewart has written and directed a serious film (with just the slightest hint of humor) that goes a long way toward emphasizing the danger journalists face when covering stories in foreign countries.
Stewart’s past film credits were supporting roles in less-than-memorable comedies. He brushes that all aside with “Rosewater,” his screenwriting and directing debut, based on the memoir (“Then They Came for Me”) that recounts Maziar Bahari’s 118 days in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison after reporting on the disputed 2009 presidential election in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faced reformist challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi.
On assignment for Newsweek, Iranian-Canadian journalist Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) leaves his pregnant wife, Paola (Claire Foy), and reunites with his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) in Tehran (filming was done in Jordan). Assisted by a new young friend Davood (Dimitri Leonidas), who zips him around town on his motorbike, he interviews people on both sides of the election but is drawn to the liberal-minded reformers who are eager for a change in the government leadership.
The lopsided election results suggest a rigged vote and the reformists, known as the Green Movement, take to the streets in a massive protest. A few days after the election, Bahari is taken into custody at his mother’s house. A humorous moment occurs as his soon-to-be interrogator (Kim Bodnia) rifles through his belongings, holding up DVDs of Pasolini’s film “Teorema,” “The Sopranos” and a Leonard Cohen album and accusing him of owning porn. Bahari objects but agrees that a magazine with a seductive Megan Fox on the cover just might be porn.
Bahari is blindfolded and kept in solitary confinement. His filming of a protest that turned deadly is used against him, as is an obviously satirical interview he did for “The Daily Show,” in which he joked with Jason Jones about being a spy. In Iran, it seems satire is no joke.
“Rosewater” is not an extravagant film filled with action and flag waving. Instead, Stewart keeps the drama intimate, focusing on the interaction between Bahari and his interrogator, skilled in psychological torture and nicknamed Rosewater for the aromatic cologne he wears. He accuses Bahari of having ties to the CIA, MI6 and Mossad and peppers him with absurd questions: How many Jews work at Newsweek? Why have you visited New Jersey? Who is this guy Anton Chekhov?
The problem here is that it’s hard to hold the tension when the result of Bahari’s story is already known. Stewart instead builds the story around Bahari’s slowly despairing state of mind. (He’s visited and offered advice by his dead father, who was imprisoned during the Shah’s regime for being a Communist.) Bahari eventually plays his own mind games with his interrogator and, in one memorable, life-affirming scene, he dances alone in his cell to the remembered strains of Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love” as his puzzled captor watches via video.
Bernal gives a powerful performance, creating a character burning with a suppressed rage who struggles with his own sanity amidst all the crushing manipulation. Bodnia plays Rosewater as a menacing thug but also manages to humanize the character in convincing ways.
With “Rosewater,” Stewart proves he can pull back from the satirical comedy and become a thoughtful, incisive and questioning filmmaker. Through telling Bahari’s story, he also brings attention to the plight of the Iranian people who for at least a moment glimpsed the power of hope and the effect it had on their country.
Open Road presents a film written and directed by Jon Stewart, based on “Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival,” by Maziar Bahari. Running time: 103 minutes. Rated R (for language including some crude references, and violent content). Opens Friday at local theaters.