I don’t know if it is that I have become numb to the harshness of world events shown on the news or that the movies I watch have inured me to violence, but I must say that I found the movie Rosewater didn’t hit me as hard as I expected.
For those of you who haven’t heard, Rosewater is Jon Stewart’s film adaptation of the book Then They Came For Me by Maziar Bahari, a journalist who was imprisoned and tortured in Iran for 4 months largely for filming the protests that arose after the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. The protests were the result of an election that was almost certainly rigged to re-elect the incumbent and Supreme Leader favourite over more moderate candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi.
Aside from the scenes that set up who Bahari is and how he came to be covering the Iranian election for Newsweek, leaving his pregnant wife behind, the film largely examines the relationship that develops between Bahari and his lead interrogator, a man who treats himself with a cologne of rosewater (thus the movie title) and is dealing with his own issues within the infrastructure of Evin Prison and the actual job itself.
This is where the movie excels. It rather even-handedly portrays a man who has little interest in being a martyr for a cause, as his father and sister had effectively become before him, and balances this against a delusional system that sees itself as protecting Iran’s Islamic State from the evils of outsiders and yet, at an individual level, struggles with the fact that it will inevitably lose. The interrogator is not a monster, but ultimately is a man who wants something better and yet feels incapable of achieving it. Thus, he plays the role he is assigned.
The relationship and struggles between these two men—Gael Garcia Bernal as Bahari and Kim Bodnia as the interrogator—is worth the price of admission alone, and in my opinion, Bodnia magnificently plays the more interesting of the two characters. As the movie itself alludes, Bahari was tortured of body while the interrogator was tortured of soul.
But that’s where I ultimately found the film wanting.
Although the movie gave us snippets of what a traditional interrogation looked like with harsh beatings and the resulting bruises on other prisoners, with the exception of one scene, we never truly saw how Bahari was tortured aside from solitary confinement (of which I by no means wish to underplay the significance). Thus, I never really felt like I was emotionally drawn into the peril Bahari was legitimately facing—potentially, his death. It remained all too abstract and cerebral.
To look at this issue from the other side, I am truly pleased that Stewart didn’t go down the road of over-dramatizing the violence, as this could easily have become a horror film. I just think there was room in the middle to bring me a little further into the peril.
Another complicating factor for my viewing was that I was watching this film next to my good friend and writing partner Agah Bahari, who is nephew to the man being assaulted onscreen. For his sake, I am grateful the portrayal of violence was not more heavy handed as I cannot imagine the impact such scenes would have.
Rosewater tells a very important story on many levels and despite being based on events from five years ago, remains significant today given the continued efforts at reform within Iran and its outward resistance to Western influences, as well as its horrible record of imprisoned and tortured political dissidents and journalists.
For such a dramatic story, the acting was incredibly even and bordered on inspiring, never becoming melodramatic. It had some amazingly beautiful moments of introspection mediated by the ghosts of the past, and again, the crisis of the interrogator was palpable and poignant. There is even a segment of outright laughter, incredible as that may be to believe given the subject matter.
Stewart did an amazing job with his directorial debut, providing us with a beautifully balanced presentation of completely polar events. I just wish it had stimulated my gut as much as it stimulated my mind.
I look forward to reading the book, simply to see what was altered and to learn more about Bahari’s thoughts and feelings in retrospect.
Journalist and author Maziar Bahari