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Rosewater

Sarah Ward

Ripped from the content of his television program, Jon Stewart's directorial debut tells a true tale with grace and sincerity.
Rosewater

In June of 2009, London-based Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari recorded a comic interview with a correspondent from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Back in his home country of Iran to cover the nation’s presidential election, he jested with actor and comedian Jason Jones, their chat made overtly amusing by the latter pretending to be an American spy. When controversy followed the voting result, Bahari remained in Tehran to document the response from the populace. On the morning of 21 June, he was taken from his mother’s home to Evin Prison on suspicion of espionage – with his appearance on The Daily Show considered evidence of his wrongdoing.

That Bahari’s story would earn ample attention is far from surprising, with his memoir – Then They Came for Me: A Family's Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival – chronicling the details of his ordeal. That his plight would also arouse the interest of Stewart is similarly easily foreseeable; however the action the noted satirist and television host took is perhaps less so. He was driven to act, optioned the rights to the journalist’s tale, and subsequently turned it into his first feature directorial effort. 

Commencing when Bahari (Gael García Bernal, No) leaves his pregnant wife, Paola (Claire Foy, TV’s Wolf Hall), for what he says will be a brief trip, Rosewater tackles the diverse events that follow with an awareness of their inherent contrasts. A loose and impassioned journey marks the first part, as he enlists the help of a local, Davood (Dimitri Leonidas, The Monuments Men) as his driver and guide, then tries to map the range of reactions sparked by the race for the country’s leadership. Solemnity and structure flavours what comes next, as Bahari is incarcerated and interrogated, struggling with fading hope but finding the will and way to persevere.

Rosewater is named for the scent and the accompanying recollections it conjures, a choice matching the feature’s earnest tone and intimate feeling; that the film’s perspective is specific to Bahari’s situation, history, and outlook is never in doubt. Of course, his story is important for a plethora of reasons, beyond one news reporter making the headlines on his own account, and clearly representing the wealth of injustice that sees journalists frequently victimised for bearing witness; however here, the movie finds its strength in equating a widespread, geo-political issue with one man. 

Indeed, as a filmmaker Stewart certainly has a nose for a story and an eye for detail, as well as an understanding that it is the personal approach that resonates. The feature’s best sequences stem from matching style with subjectivity, such as a parade of memories adorning windows and shop fronts as voiceover tells of sadness from the past, and a cathartic scene of release as Leonard Cohen plays in Bahari’s head. Where the first-time director is found lacking is in the balance between the requisite mood and the thematic motivations, sometimes disjointed in piecing together the whole picture, sometimes simply repetitive to get the point bluntly across.

Casting isn’t an area Stewart suffers in, with Bernal sensitively treading the emotions rippling through Bahari’s experience. His handling of the unexpected comic touches is similarly finessed, laughs echoing genuinely out of both disbelief at and ingenuity within the real-life circumstances, such as The Sopranos being branded pornography by the same state official who later willingly accepts a tale of sexual addiction. Co-stars Shohreh Aghdashloo (Grimm) as Bahari’s worried mother, Haluk Bilginer (Winter Sleep) and Golshifteh Farahani (Exodus: Gods and Kings) as flashbacks of his similarly targeted father and sister, and Kim Bodnia (Serena) as his main captor aren’t asked to demonstrate as much range, but impress in their small moments. As does Rosewater overall, built with grace and sincerity that never falters, even as the feature feels like less than the sum of its components and conviction.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Rosewater
Director: Jon Stewart
USA, 2014, 103 mins

Release date: 19 February
Distributor: Transmission
Rated: M

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay