Posted November 14, 2014 by Daniel Hodgson in
An impressive directorial debut for Stewart. In the space of a single film, he shows a deft hand at both drama and comedy.
As human beings, we are inherently social creatures. We need to be around other people as much as we need food or water; it’s essential. Depriving us of contact with other people is cruel and unusual—it’s a form of torture.
That is what Maziar Bahari (Gael García Bernal) endured for 118 days in Rosewater, the film adaptation of Then They Came for Me by Bahari himself, written and directed by Jon Stewart. While covering the 2009 election in Iran for Newsweek, Bahari was imprisoned for videotaping the ensuing protests and riots, which ended in the deaths of Iranian citizens. Taken to Evin Prison, he was kept blindfolded, depriving him of sight. He was denied contact with his wife, who was pregnant at the time. Kept in solitary confinement, he was deprived of any human contact, except for his interrogator, “Rosewater.”
The book mentions how Bahari was repeatedly beaten during his internment. Save for an isolated scene, this is not depicted in the film. Where another film would depict the torture graphically, Stewart makes a point in the omission. Torture is not about breaking the human body; it’s about breaking the human spirit, getting someone to tell you what you want to know, and say what you want them to say.
Rosewater, called so by Bahari because of his scent, wants Bahari to sign a false confession, that he is an American spy attempting to subvert Iran’s political system. They believe this in part because of Bahari’s interview on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, in which Jason Jones facetiously asks him if he’s a spy.
However, he refuses to comply. Bahari finds strength in imagining that his father (Haluk Bilginer) is there with him, who himself was a political prisoner under the Shaw, and solace in recollections of his sister Maryam (Golshifteh Farahani), also a political prisoner. Though she has only two scenes, hers are the most resonant, as the fine actress brings deep emotional power to Maryam, who gives support to her brother in his darkest hour.
I was reminded of Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, in how Stewart is able to find humor in the most desperate of situations. He creates tension, unbearable tension, and then releases that tension with laughter with one terrific joke, about well…you’ll see. Through Bahari, Stewart recognizes the absurdity of human suffering, its ludicrousness, making it possible to cope through almost hopeless tribulations.
Stewart turns his eye towards other governments, and our own, in practices used by their agencies to gain intelligence. It’s dispiriting. What is the point, he asks, in fighting against a government that’s no worse than any other? And he has a point there, too. A political man, Stewart has much to say in Rosewater, but he does so without subtlety. The film feels self-import in its awareness of the personal and world significance of the events. It’s melodrama, but more often than not, fine melodrama.
And an impressive directorial debut for Stewart. In the space of a single film, he shows a deft hand at both drama and comedy. Leaving the film, I thought, “So what’s he going to make next?” Something even better, I’ll bet.