You might recall that Jon Stewart took some time off from “The Daily Show” the summer of 2013 to direct his first feature film. “Rosewater,” the Austin Film Festival’s closing night movie, is that film.
While very much a movie made by a first-timer with a modest, $10 million budget, “Rosewater” is also thoughtful, straight-froward and occasionally very funny, with lines and delivery that only could have come from Stewart.
In 2009, Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) was a London-based journalist who returned to Iran to cover the election between the moderate challenger Mir-Hossein Moussavi and incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His wife is pregnant and is not wild about the trip, but it should only take about a week. Besides, it gives him a chance to visit his mother (well-known Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo) and think about his late father and sister, both of whom spent time in prison as dissidents.
He gets a driver with a moped (Dimitri Leonidas) and heads around Tehran (Iran is played by Jordan), interviewing an Ahmadinejad rep and meeting young dissidents, introduced to the “dish university,” a hangout where they bootleg international television. Stewart efficiently lays out the stakes and identifies key issues.A few days in, Bahari gives an interview to “the Daily Show,” cracking wise about being a spy. After filming some post-election demonstrations and giving it to the BBC, Bahari was arrested at his mother’s home by Revolutionary Guard, accused to being a spy for the West (with the “Daily Show” clip used as evidence) and subsequently interrogated and tortured over the next 118 days by a man he thinks of as “Rosewater,” based on the scent he wears.
It soon becomes clear that not only is the interrogation beyond Kafkaesque (and occasionally very funny –did you know, as Bahari tells Rosewater, there is an exotic city called Fort Lee, New Jersey, where you can get special massages?), but Rosewater (Kim Bodnia) is mere middle-management.
This isn’t “Zero Dark Thirty,” this is the banality of torture. Rosewater is kind of mediocre at his job and Bahari, wisely, never thinks of him as a monster, which probably helped save his sanity, as does Bahari’s sense of humor.
But he’s still in jail in a country that seems to despise everything he stands for. Bahari, a man without a religious faith, draws strength from memories of his family, be it a Leonard Cohen record or childhood bonding with his family. He often discusses his plight with his dead father and sister in his cell. In one lovely scene, Bahari dancing by himself when he realizes the world has not forgotten his plight.
We know how the story ends, so there is no real suspense here, but it is interesting to see how Stewart, an obvious master of one discipline, switches to directing a drama. But there’s a reason the most resonant moments are also the funniest.