Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 59 min.
Our Content ratings (0-10): Violence 3; Language 4; Sex 7/Nudity 0.
Our star rating (0-5): 4.5
Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners
Laying aside his Daily Show role, Jon Stewart moves behind the camera to tell a true story based on Canadian-Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari’s memoir And Then They Came For Me. Indeed, the protagonist was once a guest on Stewart’s show, a clip of which was part of the Iranian government’s campaign to force Bahari (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) to confess to spying when he was arrested while covering the 2009 Iranian election for Newsweek.
Along with the opening credits, we see roses being plucked and placed into a press that extracts the fragrant moisture from them, which in turn will be made into the scent favored by the man torturing the journalist, hence the title “Rosewater.” The story itself begins with Bahari returning to his native country and staying with his widowed mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo). Early in the morning she comes to his bedroom, informing him that there are some men here to see him. The leader questions him about the “porno” films they find in his collection—real hardcore stuff like The Sopranos and Pasolini’s Teorema. Without any explanation he is hustled into a car and taken to Even prison. The shot of him seeing the worried face of his mother through the car window will be repeated numerous times, probably because, as we learn later, her husband and older daughter had also been imprisoned by the government, the daughter dying in prison.
The movie then flashes back to Bahari’s arrival at Tehran’s airport days earlier where he is fortuitously picked up by Davood (Dimitri Leonidas), a driver with connections to the different political factions. He interviews a young supporter (Amir El-Masry) of President Ahmadinejad who denies reports of possible vote rigging in the upcoming election. “Ahmadinejad is what must be,” he naively declares. Davood takes Bahari to the other side, a group of students who have created what they call “Dish University,” a rooftop installation of a batch of satellite dishes beaming in Western media that allows them to refute the official Iranian media reports. Bahari stops filming, telling them that he does not want to get them into trouble. Just as naively as the Ahmadinejad supporter, they assure him that because their man, the moderate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, will win, there is no danger.
As Bahari is allowed into a polling station where he films a host of excited voters for the opposition showing off their inked voting fingers, it looks like Ahmadinejad will be voted out of office by the flood of young voters eager for better times. But then comes the official election report claiming that the president has won by a landslide. The students take to the streets as they use social media to arouse each other, and then the use the cameras in their phones to show the police brutally beating and shooting people.
In prison the blindfolded Bahari is interrogated by an intelligence officer whom he comes to call “Rosewater” (Kim Bodnia). Blindfolded most of the time during his 118 days of imprisonment, smell becomes an important connection to the world, along with his ears and the pain of his body when he is beaten. Rosewater’s conviction that his prisoner is a spy is based on a video recording of a spoof interview of Bahari by Daily Show cast member Jason Jones, who starts the clip by saying that he himself is a spy. Devoid of all humor, Rosewater is unable to understand that the two men were joking as part of a skit that was to be broadcast. Bahari’s pointing out that a spy would hardly say so on a TV show has no effect on his interrogator.
There are many such moments of humor in this otherwise grim story, something that obviously touched the advanced screening audience of which I was a part. In one sequence, Bahari leads the naïve Rosewater on about his alleged porno tendencies, describing the pleasures of going to a whorehouse, his listener hanging onto every fictitious word. Balancing this are clips of a scene before he had come to Iran: he had assured his pregnant wife Paola (Claire Foy) in London that he would be okay in Tehran and return in time to be with her at the birth of their child. As a part of his campaign to weaken the prisoner’s will, Rosewater allows Bahari to call her, but when the conversation does not go the way he expected, he cuts the prisoner off.
Kept in solitary confinement all the time, Bahari imagines conversations with his father and older sister who had also gone through torture. She tells him that it is his “bearing witness” to the crimes of the government that is important. In the film’s trailer there is the statement, “They can imprison you, but they cannot take away your hope.” However, in his case, hope gives way to the despair of feeling alone, and the pain of his torture, inflicted at random moments, weakens his resolve. Upsetting also is his glimpse of Davood and the students who had shown him “Dish University.” Thanks to his confiscated tapes, the dishes were destroyed and the three young men arrested and thrown into the same prison. Bahari breaks down and agrees to sign a confession, which he reads in a wooden voice before a camera. This scene reminded me of the scene in Carl Th. Dreyer’s great film The Passion of Joan of Arc wherein the young prisoner gives in to her fear of torture and recants her “voices.”
However, because he had been fairly widely known, Bahari’s cause is picked up by the media, and Stewart in particular. Even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton comments upon his imprisonment. Word of this reaches him through one of his guards, rekindling his hope and leading to a Zorba-like moment as the prisoner dances about in his tiny cell to a soundtrack recording of Leonard Cohen s ”Dance Me to the End of Love.” This strange behavior puzzles the guard monitoring him via the camera mounted near the ceiling of Bahari’s cell. Although he had given in briefly, he now knows that the oppressors cannot win. He is not alone. The world is holding the Iranian accountable.
Rosewater is shown as part of a large state apparatus designed to keep the government in power through fear and the application of brute force. He is a small cog turned by a larger one, who in turn has his superior demanding results. Pressured by his superior to break the risoner, Rosewater can charm one moment and shove his prisoner off the chair the next, and then bang his head against the wall.
The film shows the importance of the media in bearing witness to acts of injustice. In Chili and Argentina, the brutal dictatorships were able to keep their crimes secret, and thus their victims came to be known as “The Disappeared Ones.” This is harder to do today, thanks to modern satellite communication and citizens possessing cell phones and social media accounts, and journalists going to great lengths to obtain the truth. The theme of hope, nurtured by a knowledge of outsiders championing a prisoner’s cause, is also an important theme in the film. Bahari’s story is a good example of Amnesty International’s program in which a volunteer agrees to write letters to governments, the press, and other agencies on behalf of a specific prisoner.
Mixing news footage of students demonstrating in the streets against their government with staged scenes shot in Jordan, Stewart creates a convincing film. Because we already know that the journalist will be released, the tension is over how he will stand up to the psychological and physical abuse to which he is subjected. The use of close up shots of Bahari and Rosewater during most of the scenes of his incarceration helps to make us feel something of his claustrophobia—most of the time he is not even allowed to use his eyes because of their cruel command that he wear a blindfold, even when alone in his cell. He is being monitored by a spy camera, so taking it off only would bring on a painful reprisal.
It is not spoiling things to reveal that Bahari is now free and dedicating his life to advocating the cause of political prisoners, and journalists in particular. For people of faith his story is one more example of the assurance that the God to whom three major world religions trace their origins is still at work proclaiming “liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”