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‘Rosewater’ Review: A Pleasant Tale of Incarceration and Torture

By  · Published on November 14th, 2014

Open Road Films

The idea of incarceration, whether justified or unlawful, is terrifying, and when solitary confinement and torture are added to the mix the thought that any of us would last a day – let alone 118 – is most likely a pipe dream. But that’s exactly what Iranian-born Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) faced after leaving his pregnant wife in London and returning to his home country in 2009 to cover the presidential elections. After the results are announced as heavily and suspiciously in favor of the incumbent leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the populace reacts with outrage and protest. Bahari captures footage of the people in the streets and awakes the next morning to Iranian authorities rousting him from bed and taking him into custody.

He’s immediately placed in solitary confinement, labeled a spy and interrogated mercilessly by an unnamed man whom Bahari calls Rosewater (Kim Bodnia). The days and weeks tick by as he’s threatened, pressed and pushed to the emotional brink by the possibility that he’ll never see his wife, never meet his unborn child and never walk free again. It’s his desire for all those things alongside imagined conversations with his deceased father and sister – both of whom faced their own conflicts with the Iranian government – that keep his hope alive.

Rosewater achieves most everything it sets out to do with skill, grace and a powerful lead performance by Bernal, but its most glaring fault is that it doesn’t actually try to do all that much. In a sense that’s a smart play for a writer/director making his feature debut – especially one in a genre far removed from the comedy Jon Stewart’s accustomed to – but it results in a film that feels far too safe from beginning to end.

“You must take his hope,” says a higher up to an eager to please Rosewater, and it’s that flawed plan that is the film’s focus. It’s a familiar theme with movies as distant and diverse as The Shawshank Redemption and the sadly under-seen Closet Land wringing it for all the blood, sweat and tears possible, and while Bahari’s incarceration is far less harsh it’s still a nightmare scenario. Deemed too valuable for traditional forms of physical abuse, he’s subjected to verbal taunts and promises of release if he confesses to the intentions and associations related to spying for the CIA, Mossad or even Newsweek magazine.

Their evidence is based more on desperation than fact, although they do point to an interview Bahari did with The Daily Show’s Jason Jones – an interview where Jones jokingly refers to himself as an American spy – as reason enough to suspect Bahari of wrongdoing.

A dramatic true tale about freedom of the press and the power of the human spirit, the film still makes times for moments of levity and relief. References to sexual massage, New Jersey and having to dial 9 to get an outside line earn laughs for their absurdity as much as for their comedic value, and the key to much of it is Bernal. His delivery and expressions betray a disbelief at his captor’s folly even as he’s trapped in their grasp.

These are the lighter moments of Bahari’s captivity, but even when the film descends into it darkest and most serious scenes it never truly feels all that hopeless. This is not a criticism of Bahari’s real-life ordeal, as again, most of us would crumble in hours, but the film feels like an ultimately light affair. Sure it’s uplifting – how could it not be – and we all cheer for tales about the indomitable nature of the human spirit, but it’s a by the number experience. The lack of real physical abuse makes it perhaps too palatable as Bahari isn’t forced to face his own physical limits of endurance, and we never truly worry about or for him. He holds on to his hope, we’re happy for him and we move on. By contrast, the trauma faced by his father and sister, trauma that led to their deaths, was heavier and far more severe, and while it doesn’t belittle Bahari’s experience it certainly puts it in perspective.

Rosewater – so named by Bahari for the scent of the man’s cologne and the memory it triggers of a shrine from his youth where only the “most pious” were sprinkled with it – is portrayed with humanity and the sigh-worthy resignation of a 9 to 5 employee by Bodnia, and his scenes with his boss tease both the futility of it all as well as Rosewater’s own dissatisfaction. It’s an interesting aside, but it’s one that never gets explored beyond mere glimpses. The supporting players, including Shohreh Aghdashloo as Bahari’s mother and Dimitri Leonidas as the driver who introduces him to the people’s resistance, are uniformly fine.

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.

The Upside: Gael Garcia Bernal; triumphant message; avoids putting a villainous spin on Iran

The Downside: Obvious, soft and safe; the top four male Iranian characters are played by a Mexican, a Ukrainian, a Greek and a Turk

On the Side: Jon Stewart became friends with Maziar Bahari through his Daily Show interviews, and that friendship – combined with the guilt he felt at the show being used as evidence against Bahari – led to his interest in adapting the man’s memoir into a film.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.