Thursday, July 2, 2015

A Primer On Modern Iran, Rosewater Makes For Interesting Viewing.

The Good: Good acting, Decent tension, Interesting character
The Bad: (Unfortunately) Familiar plot, Somewhat monolithic characters.
The Basics: Rosewater is a fairly straightforward film depicting the torture of a Western reporter in Iran in the wake of the 2009 presidential election there.

Coming out of 2014, there were very few films that I wanted to see that I missed. After finally catching The Skeleton Twins (reviewed here!), the last film from 2014 I still had to catch was Rosewater, the directoral debut of Jon Stewart. Rosewater is based upon actual events, much like Argo (reviewed here!), though the story is certainly more current and, as such, dangerous to the people involved and those related to them.

Rosewater tells the story of journalist Maziar Bahari and his ordeals in the wake of the 2009 Iranian presidential election. While U.S. news outlets were fairly anemic in the reporting of the citizen uprisings in Iran following the election, Rosewater gives a very intimate view of the events. The film blends the performance of Gael Garcia Bernal as Bahari with footage shot by the actual Bahari and other journalists in Iran. While Rosewater is based upon actual events, there is some artistic license to the movie (a political officer giving orders to the interrogator several rooms away from Bahari is not something the reporter would have first-hand knowledge of. As with all historical dramas, it is important to note that this review is of the film Rosewater, not the events or people upon which the movie is based.

Opening on June 21, 2009 in Tehran, the British journalist Maziar Bahari wakes up to men visiting his mother's house, where they go through his possessions and take him away. Eleven days earlier, Maziar leaves the UK for Iran. He tells the cabbie who picks him up at the airport that he is there to cover the elections for Newsweek. Davood, whom Maziar learns the next morning does not actually own a cab, is excited about the presidential candidate who is not Ahmadinijad. On debate day, Maziar meets with Alireza, a former citizen of the UK who is actively working for the Ahmadinijad, who denies that the election will be close and insists that Ahmadinijad has the support of the people. Davood brings Maziar to some youth in Iran who support Mousavi, who is predicted to win the election. Maziar films a segment for The Daily Show With Jon Stewart before he and the Mousavi supporters watch the debate on the eve of Election Day.

On Election Day, Bahari is alarmed when he receives a call (well before the polls close) from Alireza, who informs him that Ahmadinijad has been re-elected in a landslide. Protests begin in Iran as the news is reported that Ahmadinijad has won the election. Over the course of the days that follow, Bahari gets footage of the uprisings and protests in the street. After transmitting his footage to the UK, Bahari wakes up to government agents who take him away. Maziar is taken to Evin Prison - where both his sister and father were previously imprisoned - where he is interrogated and kept in solitary confinement. Between interrogations, Bahari has visions of his dead father, who advises him on how to survive the imprisonment.

Rosewater is a vital and necessary film, but it is difficult to watch and offers a very specific story that is, unfortunately, not very original. The details of Maziar Bahari's torture are intense and specific and because it is a story of human suffering it has no entertainment value. This is an informational piece and while it is horrifying to consider the reality of it, it is mired in its own reality. Rosewater suffers because the only audience likely to sit through it is savvy to human rights violations embodied by torture.

Co-writer and director Jon Stewart directs Rosewater well and it is obvious why he chose this project. In addition to a component of Bahari's incarceration being the sketch in which he appeared for The Daily Show, Stewart has long worked to raise the public awareness of problems in the world. Rosewater serves to make sure that Maziar Bahari's story did not get forgotten and reach a larger audience than Bahari's memoirs of his torture. And Stewart makes sure that Rosewater is appropriately ponderous and unpleasant (torture memoirs should not be entertaining). But outside the specific story of Maziar Bahari, Stewart is preaching to the choir; the audience that will sit through Rosewater is likely to already understand the horrors of how torture is conducted, if even only from something like the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Chain Of Command, Part II" (reviewed here!).

Stewart's directing is pretty straightforward. Just like the picture of Wolfgang's father on his grave in the first episode of Sense8 (reviewed here!) is used so viewers will instantly recognize the father when he appears in flashback sequences, the only reason for Maziar's father's voiceover to repeat Maziar's early voiceover lines is so viewers will recognize him when he appears in Maziar's hallucinations. This is not a huge problem, but it is a somewhat obvious technique Stewart employs. Far more original is his depiction of how social media spread the Green Revolution in Iran. The hashtag map around Tehran is more original and more effective than the use of the real-life footage from the event.

What is notable about Rosewater is the performance of Gael Garcia Bernal. Bernal portrays Maziar and as Maziar struggles to remain sane in captivity, Bernal is able to add nuance to his performance. His initial stiff-backed portrayal of Maziar resisting evolves into a twitchy body language that is unsettling to watch and embodies well an unsettled mind. It is unfortunate that Bernal was overlooked during awards season.

It is less surprising that Rosewater was overlooked. The story is an important one that we not forget, but it is mirrored by tragedies of a similar nature that occur every day from genocide in the Sudan to children being molested within their homes each night. We know these things happen and we know they are tragedies; in many ways Rosewater only serves to remind viewers that there is nothing we can do to stop them when they occur. That is a horrible lesson to take away from such a film, though it is a more universal message than a generic "triumph of the human spirit" story of resistance.

For other works with Gael Garcia Bernal, please visit my reviews of:
Casa De Mi Padre
Letters To Juliet


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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