A Comedian Takes A New Direction

Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, Rosewater, is based on the memoir of Maziar Behari, an Iranian-Canadian journalist who was arrested while covering the 2009 elections in Iran. Behari spent 118 days in solitary confinement in Iran’s Evin prison. Michael O’Sullivan calls Stewart’s film “an impressive and important piece of storytelling,” and David Edelstein agrees:

In outline, Rosewater sounds earnest, one-note, relentless — something you’d watch out of a sense of duty. But it turns out to be a sly, layered work, charged with dark wit along with horror. The heart of the movie is the Kafkaesque relationship (if that’s the word) between Bahari (Gael García Bernal) and the interrogator-torturer whom Bahari dubs “Rosewater” (Kim Bodnia) for his distinctive scent. What happens between them has a dramatic fullness that’s rare in political filmmaking.

Other reviews are more mixed. Esther Breger questions “whether Stewart can hack it as a filmmaker,” writing that the film is at its best when it employs humor:

The scenes between Behari and Rosewater also allow Stewart to do something he’s very good atbe funny. The interrogation process is both grueling and surreal, and Stewart has an eye for those absurdities. Behari’s “Sopranos” DVDs are treated as pornography when he’s taken into custody. Trips to New Jersey are automatically suspicious. And who is that Anton Chekhov mentioned on your Facebook profile? Midway through his confinement, Behari begins to distract Rosewater by appealing to the man’s prurient side, concocting deadpan tales of Western decadence and erotic massages. For his next film, Stewart should take things a little less seriously.

Thomas Hachard differs, suggesting Stewart “may have been too tasteful” in sticking to “predictable knocks against the kinds of insular interrogators and government officials that wouldn’t be able to recognize the Daily Show’s satire.” He criticizes the film’s disjointed narrative:

When Stewart features news footage of a debate between Ahmadinejad and one of his main challengers, opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, or real video of the violence against those protesting the contested election results, the most serious concerns surrounding Bahari’s arrest come into view. But in other moments, Stewart takes a more dismissive approach, treating Bahari’s interrogator, for example, as an unappreciated buffoon looking for recognition from his superiors. In those moments, Stewart seems to want to turn these men into trifling figures, refusing to give them even the benefit of serious treatment. There are times, too, when the film takes a more broadly inspirational tone, addressing itself to Bahari’s resolute spirit — itself an allegory, it would seem, for Iran’s quelled opposition.

One can imagine a film that combined these various approaches into a cohesive story, but in Rosewater they’re blindly tossed together, and the result neither portrays the suffering of Bahari’s incarceration adequately nor lampoons the absurdities of the situation.

Brett McCracken agrees the movie fails to find a focus:

Stewart’s film champions the important role of journalists even as it laments the degradation of the profession. Are traditional journalists even necessary in a world of citizen reporting and organizing via cell phone and social media? Rosewater nods in this direction, but doesn’t take up the question thoroughly. Indeed, one of the weaknesses of the film is that it doesn’t have clear focus or commitment to going deeper into one particular question. Is the film about Iran? Torture? Family? Journalism? The cyclical nature of war, terror and violence? Rosewater is about all of this, but it may have been stronger had it chosen just one or two of these areas to more profoundly ponder.

And Rob Hunter zooms out:

Stewart’s film is attractive, well-acted and “important,” and his stylistic touches of visible hashtags and other social media shorthand make it very much a film in the now. But is it a film that will be remembered in a year’s time? Bahari’s triumph is real, impressive and relevant. Rosewater is a pleasant feature debut.