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Rosewater - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

Gael García Bernal is a wonderfully talented actor, but it's a little mystifying why feature debut director Jon Stewart chose a famous Mexican actor to play real-life Iranian prisoner Maziar Bahari. Aren't there plenty of talented Iranian, or even Middle Eastern, actors out there? Stewart clearly knows there are: he hired Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog) to play Bahari's mother, and several other Iranian or Middle Eastern actors to play many of the supporting roles.

That said, Bernal is still excellent in the lead role, impressively displaying an Iranian accent as he speaks English when his own native language is Spanish. That's quite the bit of linguistic juggling. And he's what makes it so easy to get absorbed into a true story that is fascinating indeed: Bahari, visiting his hometown of Tehran to cover elections as a journalist, is detained in his childhood home and then imprisoned for 118 days.

One can understand why Jon Stewart chose this film to take a few months off of The Daily Show to direct, after adapting the screenplay himself from Bahari's memoir about the ordeal. Bahari, well versed in Western absurdist humor, submits to an interview by a Daily Show correspondent who casually refers to him as a spy, and makes ironically insensitive observations about Iranian culture. During Bahari's visit home, his mind is mostly on his work as a journalist; the Daily Show spot is comparatively an afterthought.

But after Bahari gets footage of violent government retaliation to street protests in the wake of a transparently corrupted election that supposedly kept Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power, Bahari's captors throw him in prison and use the Daily Show footage as evidence of Bahari being a spy, or at least plotting to overthrow the government.

Most of Rosewater is thus a chronicle of the abuses Bahari suffered in prison. Stewart deftly walks an awkward line between tragedy and farce, in a way that underscores how the experience falls squarely under the former while being thinly veiled as the latter. There are times when the interrogations are comical in their preposterousness, from declaring DVDs of The Sopranos "porno" to asking how much sex he has based on the number of women's phone numbers in his cell phone. His interrogators can't possibly believe the idiotic things they accuse Bahari of. It's all about beating him down, sometimes physically but mostly emotionally.

Bahari spends a whole lot of time in solitary confinement. Presumably to help break up the monotony, Stewart sprinkles in several scenes in which Bahari has imagined conversations with his own late father, who was also imprisoned several decades prior -- for being a communist, which he actually was. (The difference now is Bahari is accused of being a spy, which he plainly is not.) These scenes, honestly, move Rosewater a little too close to cornball territory -- not oppressively so, but these scenes bear no narrative necessity.

Still, Rosewater -- the title a reference to the scent of holy water associated with piousness, here rendered hypocritical -- gets to the heart of the paranoia and fear of the Iranian authorities. It's a fascinating look at the deluded thinking of those who would support Ahmadinejad to the bitter end. Its a story with some kinks and wrinkles in the telling, but its unique nature and engaging performances still make it well worth the time.

Kim Bodnia and Gael García Bernal play emotional tug of war in ROSEWATER.

Overall: B+
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