Review: Stewart’s ‘Rosewater’ captures a real-life war of wills in an Iranian prison |

Review: Stewart’s ‘Rosewater’ captures a real-life war of wills in an Iranian prison

Open Road Films
Gael Garcia Bernal in a scene from the film, 'Rosewater'
Open Road Films
Kim Bodnia (left) and Gael Garcia Bernal in a scene from the film, 'Rosewater'

Maziar Bahari was a reporter in the right place at the right time. An Iranian ex-pat turned Western journalist, he toted a video camera through his native land — catching up with his mom, careful not to expose himself or his sources as Iran’s 2009 elections turned into the abortive “Green Revolution.”

But he wasn’t careful enough. Within days of his return home, he was arrested, despite being an accredited Newsweek reporter. What happened to him in a prison cell of the Islamic Republic of Iran is the riveting focus of “Rosewater,” the film-directing debut of pundit-comic Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show.”

“Rosewater” shows Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) arriving, always grinning as he befriends a young taxi driver (Dimitri Leonidas) who then guides him into the youth culture that has been educated in a repressive, censorious Islamic state, by “Dish University.”

That’s what they call their fields of hidden satellite dishes, their connection to news that’s not propaganda, to web servers where the Twitterverse was still free. Bahari feeds his video and bends over backward not to endanger his sources or offend his hosts.

Then, the election happens, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wins in a dubious landslide that made no sense to his foes, who knew the demographics. Like much of the Middle East, Iran is overwhelmingly young, and the young want “Mad Men” and Katy Perry CDs, not old-guard anti-American revolutionary rhetoric. As the protests start and the government-backed enforcers start shooting, Bahari is among those to get footage — uncredited — to the outside world. And that’s when the plainclothes cops arrive.

“Rosewater” was the name Bahari gave his persecutor (Kim Bodnia), a cunning, perfumed older man charged with getting a confession from this Westernized Iranian, a confession that discredits his reporting.

As Rosewater, Bodnia builds on the menace of potential. He is much bigger and tougher than Bahari. The prisoner is kept blindfolded, helplessly seated. Daily beatings are not necessary. It’s the psychological threat that eats at the reporter. His solitary confinement isn’t the ugliest we’ve seen. But the silence, the lack of books, human contact (other than intense questioning) wears on his psyche.

Stewart plays the suspense card well. He makes the abrupt turn-abouts alternately inspiring and alarming. And Bernal shuts down any complaints about a Mexican playing an Iranian with his performance — by turns cheerful, fearful, broken and disappointed.

Stewart and Bernal have made a smart, moving and media-savvy memoir that might not make the world’s totalitarians quake in their boots. But from North Korea to China, Iran to Syria, it will have them looking over their shoulders and on rooftops, in search of satellite dishes.

Roger Moore reviews movies for McClatchy News Service.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.