LFF: Rosewater review


The real life arrest of Iranian-Canadian Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari provides the rich subject matter for Jon Stewart‘s directorial debut, Rosewater. Sadly, Stewart has squandered this material on a film that is terribly uneven and often badly judged.

The film begins with a dreamy sequence in which a voiceover talks about ‘rosewater’, before we move to the raid of Bahari’s mother’s home in Tehran and the arrest of Bahari by a government “specialist’ who, it so turns out, is code-named Rosewater (Kim Bodnia).

The interchange between the two men is surprisingly light-hearted and perhaps even silly. Rosewater holds up a number of Bahari’s possessions and informs him that they are “porno.” These range from arthouse classics such as Teorema to a copy of Empire magazine with Megan Fox gracing the cover. Bahari jokingly concedes that maybe Rosewater’s assessment of that one might not be too far off the mark.

Everything about this scene felt like two actors doing improv, and very little rang true. Unfortunately, this continued to be the case, with many similar scenes arriving as the film went on. It was often easy to forget that was the story of about a real man who was wrongfully imprisoned and tortured.

Stewart quickly takes us back to the events that lead up to the raid for an account of the 2009 election in Iran, which was stolen by Ahmadinejad and triggered demonstrations in the streets of Tehran. It’s here that Stewart finds his groove, and it’s also where we hear some of the most convincing dialogue in the film. Following the escalation of the protests and the violence that follows, however, we find ourselves back with Rosewater and Bahari on their way to prison.

The bulk of the film remains – or it at least felt like the bulk of the film – with Rosewater slowly chipping away at Bahari’s sanity. Rosewater is trying to force Bahari to confess that he’s an American spy.

These scenes are again filled with awkward, out-of-place humour and Stewart often lets the cinematic illusion slip. Once again, it was obvious that we are looking at actors. Bernal and Bodnia have turned in perfectly fine performances, but the dialogue and tonal miscalculations have done them no favours whatsoever.

One scene early in Rosewater is a re-enactment of Bahari’s interview with The Daily Show shortly before his capture, with Jason Jones appearing as a clueless American spy for comedy effect. This was later used by Bahari’s Iranian captors as evidence that he really was a spy, the captors believing the clip to show real events despite the obvious artifice.

The moment has the same strain of gallows humour that Stewart seems to want for many scenes, and here it did almost worked for me. Still, I think it’s brutally ironic that Stewart has taken a jab at the Iranian government for believing in a rather silly clip that clearly features an actor riffing when the film he’s made is ultimately no more convincing.

Stewart’s intentions with Rosewater are clearly very noble and the film is about an important topic, but in his attempt to give us a spoonful of sugar he’s managed to over sweeten the recipe so badly that it proved hard to come away with a taste of anything else at all.