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Review: Rosewater (2014)

Rosewater (2014)

Directed by: Jon Stewart

Premise: A true story of Newsweek reporter Mazier Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) who was arrested by Iranian authorities and accused of being a spy. 

What Works: There is an entire genre of movies in which the main character is held as a prisoner and must outlast and outwit his captors. Movies like this include POW dramas like Unbroken and wrongful incarceration stories such as The Shawshank Redemption. Rosewater is firmly a part of this genre and what the filmmakers do best in this picture is to capture the frightening and chaotic aspects of being held as a political prisoner under false pretenses. In many of these kinds of films the hero shows a superhuman ability to withstand the torture and temptations of his captors. By contrast, Bahari is portrayed at a much more human scale and that makes him more empathetic. Bahari is played by actor Gael Garcia Bernal and the actor does a very good job. The role is challenging because the story does not actually give the actor much to do except sit in a prison cell and be tortured and yet Bernal is able to give the character a lot of personality and even moments of wit and humor. As dramatized in the film, Mazier Bahari was reporting on the 2009 Iranian presidential election and when the election results were transparently fraudulent there was an uprising that the government quelled through violence. Bahari documented that violence and broadcast it to the world. For that he was arrested and accused of espionage. The early portions of Rosewater effectively set up this background. The filmmakers make vivid use of on-screen text and other non-diegetic elements that represent the use of social media among the Iranian people in the lead up to the revolt. The demonstration and riot scenes mix archival footage with dramatic recreations and this is done seamlessly. One of Rosewater’s most outstanding qualities is the way it visualizes the link between the personal and the political. It’s revealed that Bahari came from a family that had a history of subversive political activities and his father and sister had been arrested years earlier. This allows for a connection between Bahari’s family history and the history of Iran and the filmmakers use some creative effects to present the exposition visually.

What Doesn’t: Rosewater sags in the middle of the film. Even though the picture is only 103 minutes in length it seems to go on longer. Some of that is due to the repetitiousness of the movie. The bulk of Bahari’s imprisonment takes place in one of two rooms and so the movie is a cycle of interrogation scenes intercut with solitary moments of the journalist sitting alone with his thoughts. That repetition is part of the point of the movie; the seemingly endless cycle creates a simulation of what it means to be incarcerated. For a movie that mostly takes place in just a few rooms, the filmmakers of Rosewater do an admirable job of finding new camera angles and keeping the material as fresh as they can. However, the movie lacks a sense of narrative momentum. The story of Rosewater does not have much of a shape and it isn’t propelling the character to an epiphany.  The film does not reveal anything new about the politics of Iran or the role of a journalist or what it means to be a prisoner. The film also comes up short in putting the events in their full context. For example, prior to his arrest, Bahari did an interview with a correspondent from the satirical television program The Daily Show in which television personality Jason Jones pretended to be an American spy. This interview was a key piece of evidence used to justify Bahari’s imprisonment. The trouble is that the film does not put The Daily Show segment in its proper context. Viewers unfamiliar with the show or Bahari’s story may not understand what’s happened.

Bottom Line: Rosewater is overall a satisfactory film and an impressive directorial debut from Jon Stewart. The film tells a compelling story in a way that is mostly engaging and it features a notable lead performance by Gael Garcia Bernal.

Episode: #525 (January 18, 2015)