Rosewater: An unfunny inquisition

No laughing matter: Gael Garcia Bernal as the jailed journalist Maziar Bahari in Rosewater

No laughing matter: Gael Garcia Bernal as the jailed journalist Maziar Bahari in Rosewater

Master TV satirist Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, about a journalist jailed in Iran, is well meaning but there aren’t quite enough laughs to prevent it from being dreary on the eye.

Speaking to packed auditoriums and hailed by adoring crowds at last year’s Toronto international film festival, Stewart was treated more like a movie star than a satirist.

Rosewater is the story of the journalist Maziar Bahari who, while ­covering the Iranian elections in 2009, was imprisoned for 118 days by the Ahmadinejad regime. He was ultimately freed, but only after a publicity campaign that inspired an intervention by the then United States secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.
Put simply, it’s not a story with a lot of laughs.

The jokes that do make it are among the best bits of the film. After being arrested in his mother’s home, Bahari – played as something of an innocent by Gael Garcia Bernal – is confronted with his DVD collection as evidence of a debauched Western lifestyle. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema: it’s a porno, says the inquisitor. No, says Behari. The Sopranos: it’s a porno. No, says Behari. Empire magazine with Megan Fox on the cover: it’s a porno. Well, says Behari, it could be ...

The inquisitor is called Rosewater. Played by Kim Bodnia, aka Martin Rohde from The Bridge, he will interrogate Bahari every day over the course of the next four months. He will attempt to force a confession from his captive to various crimes; from being a spy to simply a cog in a vast Zionist media conspiracy. There are further flashes of comic absurdity, as when Bahari is told he’s to be shot, but that he can also have a Nescafé. It’s what you might hope for from Stewart, who adapted Bahari’s book for the screen himself.

It’s the bits around the laughs that are the problem. Aside from his disgust (ahem) at matters pornographic, the character of Rosewater is something of a blank. Which is a bit problematic when the dynamic between himself and Bahari is the heart of the film.

As the internment goes on the scenes between the pair feel repetitive, despite Bernal and Bodnia’s best efforts to inject some emotional resonance. Another drain on the drama is the knowledge that Behari is eventually released. It’s something of an ask to create nail-biting tension when you already know the outcome, and Stewart isn’t quite able to pull the trick off.

Add in a substantial amount of plain, expositional dialogue and cinematography that (no doubt for reasons of verisimilitude) is dull and dreary on the eye, and Rosewater begins to creak at the edges. It’s saved, though, by another series of interrogations; that of Behari by his dead father. Once himself a detainee at the hands of the Shah, Behari senior (Haluk Bilginer) is not one to compromise, even as a ghost.

Each time he pops up he provokes Behari into being stronger, but not without infuriating him first. Behari can’t stand his dad’s pomposity and doesn’t share his ideology, but also misses him terribly. It’s a nuanced, moving relationship, which shows Stewart has promise as a filmmaker. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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