"Rosewater" tells the gripping true story of London-based Iranian journalist, Maziar Bahari, who was detained in Iran after filming incriminating footage of the riots that followed the unpopular election result in 2009. Arrested by the Revolutionary Guard, led by a man identifying himself only as "Rosewater" (Kim Bodnia), Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) was thrown into prison and brutally interrogated for 118 days. Recounting his efforts to maintain his hope and his sanity in the face of isolation and persecution - through memories of his family, recollections of his favourite music and thoughts of his wife and unborn child - "Rosewater" is a powerful personal story about a journalist who risked his freedom, and his life, to expose the truth.
The story of Maziar Bahari is one that is both emotionally powerful and strangely amusing. He was a prisoner in Iran for both filming the election protests of 2009 and appearing in an interview segment of the satirical news program The Daily Show. The Iranians misinterpret the interview as being a serious exchange that serves as evidence as Maziar to be a spy though he is only a journalist. But being associated with The Daily Show and Newsweek apparently puts you in the conspiracy ring of the CIA and is enough for the Iranian government to consider you a spy worthy of imprisonment. It’s both ridiculous and depressing that a government would be so misinformed on the world that they attempt to destroy people’s lives. You need only look to the criticism of this film to see more of that fear and ignorance the way Iranian state television criticized director Jon Stewart, whom they believe is a Zionist funded CIA shill.
Stewart’s Rosewater, based on Bahari’s memoir Then They Came for Me, plays at the perfect tone throughout. It knows exactly when to be amusing, tearful and dark with an earnest feeling to the events. Bahari, played exceptionally by Gael Garcia Bernal, is established as a charismatic journalist who doesn’t appear all that fearful for venturing into his home country of Iran to cover a story. He has a pregnant wife waiting for him back home in the UK and a mother who he loves to visit while back in Iran to cover the protests. While interviewing both sides of the election, Bahari befriends a smart cab driver whom he hangs out with for interviews and watching the presidential debates on his rooftop decorated with satellites. But when riots break out over the election results, Bahari becomes a target for pointing his camera at the violence and sharing it with the world.
When the Iranian government invades Bahari’s home to search for any signs of him being a spy, the film dances between a state of fear and comedy. Searching through his possessions, an interrogator whom Bahari dubs Rosewater (based on his smell) questions him about what he owns. He holds up a DVD of an Italian art film and asks if it’s porno. He holds up a DVD set of The Sopranos and asks if it’s porno. You can at least forgive the interrogator a little bit for believing Bahari’s copy of Maxim magazine was porno. Not enough to detain him, but it makes more sense than believing a record of Leonard Cohen is porno music. Though Bahari holds back his laughter during this scene, he can’t help but snicker when brought to a prison interrogation room where Rosewater uses his Daily Show interview as evidence.
Bahari was detained for 118 days in Evin Prison enduring day after day of interrogation and isolation. Secluded to a small cell, Bahari starts talking to a hallucination of his father who had been imprisoned himself. Constantly at war with confessing to crimes he never committed, his dad gives him solid advice about not folding while visions of his younger mother comfort his soul. Bahari goes through several conflicting emotions throughout his imprisonment. When he fears for the safety of mother and expecting wife, he sinks deep into a tearful depression. When Rosewater forces Bahari to call his wife and shut her up about talking to the press, Bahari is ecstatic to hear that about the gender of his child. It’s the best news he’s heard in months that nothing can break his spirit at that moment. He laughs after Rosewater hangs up the phone in anger, Bahari smiling and asking if he should call her back. A song from Leonard Cohen plays in his mind as he dances in his cell with pleasure.
For being Jon Stewart’s writing and directorial debut, he turns in a very human appeal to Rosewater. In the 12 weeks he took off from The Daily Show to make this picture, Stewart hits all the right beats in a script that never overplays its drama, humor or message. You can tell that the subject matter is very close to Stewart’s heart for satire the way Bahari found a comical weakness to his interrogators and exploited it with glee. It’s easy enough to find humor in a government so ignorant and fearful that it has to arrest journalists. When Bahari finally realizes that men like Rosewater are so scared of their public image they question and punish all voices of that even slightly appear as descent, he no longer fears them as much. Any governments that have to imprison journalists are cowards and a film like this doesn’t need much to showcase that cowardice.