If you’re planning to see “Rosewater,” you probably already know it’s the directorial debut of comedian and “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart. You also probably know that it’s a film on a very serious subject: the jailing of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari for 118 days by the Iranian government on charges of being a US spy. What you may not be prepared for is the way that humor does play a part in the story, in the sense that recognizing the total absurdity of a theocratic police state is one way to rise above fear and keep one’s mind free. In “Rosewater,” ridicule becomes a weapon of liberation.
The film is based closely on Bahari’s experiences as related in his 2011 book, “Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival,” co-written with Aimee Molloy. On assignment from Newsweek, Bahari (played by Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal) arrives in Tehran on the eve of the Islamic Republic’s 2009 presidential race. He’s witness to the massive street protests and bloody crackdown that followed what most observers consider the fraudulent election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a second term.
During the second week of the protests, Bahari was arrested at the home of his mother (played by Shohreh Aghdashloo) and taken to Evin Prison, where over several months he was interrogated by a man he called Rosewater (Kim Bodnia), after the cologne he wore. The evidence Bahari was a spy? A parody interview he gave to “Daily Show” correspondent Jason Jones, re-created in the film with Jones playing himself. On some level, you have to wonder if this movie is Stewart’s way of atoning for his show’s satiric sins.
What makes “Rosewater” different from similar entries in what might be called the Triumph of the Imprisoned Spirit genre is that the hero is hardly an ideologue, despite having sympathy for the Iranian reformers and the Green party. He’s a working journalist with a pregnant wife (Claire Foy) back in London and a worried mother in Tehran, and he’s openly scared. Bahari’s father (Haluk Bilginier) was a communist imprisoned by the Shah’s regime; his older sister, Maryam (Golshifteh Farahani), was jailed in the 1980s by Ayatollah Khomeini; both dead, they visit Maziar as ghostly avatars of his fears and conscience.
It’s in the depiction of Rosewater and the entire bureaucracy of the Iranian police state that Stewart and his collaborators take an intriguing left turn. A burly functionary with a boss (Nasser Faris) riding him hard to get a confession from Bahari, Rosewater’s greatest sin may be his lack of imagination. Any Western art-house DVD must be porn, any book he hasn’t heard of must be seditious. At one point, Bahari spins a tale worthy of Scheherazade, about New Jersey as a haven of illegal massage parlors, that has his captor’s eyes bugging out of his head. Rosewater, it turns out, is a harried, gullible mid-level manager — he’s the banality that evil needs to do its work.
Bahari, of course, got off easy in the end, and Stewart’s film acknowledges this. He was roughed up, by his own account, but not tortured or killed by his captors. He had the luxury of an international campaign for his release and of news stories across the mainstream media. “Rosewater” gives us enough glimpses of what happens to youthful protesters like Bahari’s driver Davood (a terrific, high-energy Dimitri Leonidas) to make you wonder how much of Bahari’s book and this film are prompted by guilt.
Still, it’s a more than solid first film from Stewart, a little artsy in some places, ambitiously staged in others (with Jordan subbing for Tehran), but mostly straightforwardly done. A few scenes haunt the memory, such as Bahari blindfolded in a prison yard, his body following the path of the sun until only his straining fingertips catch its last warming rays. And if you’re the sort that gets bothered by an Iranian journalist being played by a Mexican heartthrob, know that Bernal cannily uses his charm to convey both his character’s skills as a reporter and non-credentials as a prisoner of conscience. As a martyr, Bahari’s a lightweight, just as you or I might be in these circumstances. “Rosewater” doesn’t ask us to admire a hero but to sympathize with a human being; instead of moving us to outrage, it stirs derision at any government that keeps its people in jail. “Rosewater” makes its oppressors seem laughably small, and that may be the most seditious act of all.