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