In “Rosewater,” Maziar (Gael Garcia Bernal) wakes up to some shadowy figures in his bedroom. They’re Iranian investigators and they sift through his personal items. Soon after, Maziar is hauled away, and director Jon Stewart gives some context.
It’s July 2009, Maziar flies to his home country to cover the Iranian election for Newsweek. As he walks the streets, Stewart uses storefronts and buildings as a palette for images and footage of Maziar’s sister Maryam (Golshifteh Farahani) and his father Akbar (Haluk Bilginer), who both served time in Iranian prisons.
Maziar chases pre-election stories and does an interview with a satirical, political show (in real life, it was “The Daily Show”). He befriends cabbie Davood (Dimitri Leonidas) who shows him the people’s choice for a new leader.
When said choice loses, the people of Iran revolt. Maziar films a shooting by the government’s hand. He sends it to his journalism buds, and we’re up to speed on the shadowy figures and the whole arrest thing.
In prison, specialist Rosewater (Kim Bodnia) spends forever with Maziar, and Stewart shows this in a montage of interrogation. Clips of Rosewater at different locations in the cell, and varied levels of light shining through a window mark the passage of time. I was thankful I didn’t have to sit through the ultra-bad torture, which Stewart shows in quick hits.
“You must not just take his blood. You must take his hope” are Rosewater’s orders, but I never really felt like this film gave me the hard-nosed despair this captive must’ve felt. Think “Shawshank Redemption” or “Hunger,” but I don’t think a heart-rocking jailbird tale was Stewart’s intention with “Rosewater” — a little to its detriment.
I could’ve used a focused look at Maziar’s insanity in solitary confinement. He hallucinates talking to his deceased father. He fantasizes about slitting his wrist, but there was little else to illustrate his hopelessness.
And that’s no fault of Gael Garcia Bernal, who’s starred in “The Motorcycle Diaries,” “Amores Perros” and “The Science of Sleep.” He can bring the pain through tears, and oh, what a debonair smile, but I think what was lacking here was the screenplay.
Directorially, Stewart did make some sweet choices. It was like his “Rosewater” aimed to show an Iran that isn’t portrayed in the media, and at that, I think he succeeded.
He shows Iranian men and women out in droves to vote. He zooms in on voters verifying ballots with their fingerprints. In another scene, Davood is praying on his knees, as Maziar sifts through his phone a couple of feet away. Stewart goes from mid-shot to wide to show they’re on the side of the highway.
A couple of technical things this reviewer wasn’t into: shaky, almost-’80s looking shots of the street they’re driving past and a scene flooded with hashtags. He also mixes real footage with his own, and the transition between the two was bumpy.
On the plus side, there’s some perfectly executed humor among the dark. In one scene, Rosewater demands Maziar tell his wife to stop talking to the media. He throws him around the cell. Rosewater’s all up in his face and says “Call and tell her to stop talking sh— …. and you have to dial 9 to get out.”
I can read Maziar’s book “Then They Came for Me” for the despair and suspense. For Stewart’s retelling, he may have been right on the mark making a film with respect, responsibility and grace for this journalist’s story. And it was like he was making an amends for his time anchoring a political satire and, potentially, for any perceived role his show played in Maziar’s arrest.
While “Rosewater” was a bit diluted for my taste, it was sweet seeing Stewart’s debut as a director, but this one may be better suited for the small screen.
Now showing: Zinema 2
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Kim Bodnia
Screenwriter/director: Jon Stewart
Based on novel: “Then They Came for Me” by Maziar Bahari
Rating: R for language including some crude references and violent content