A journalist is detained in Iran for more than 100 days and brutally interrogated in prison.
Year 3, Film #36
THE GOOD: Many films, especially in recent times, have covered the topic of interrogation and foreign affairs (Zero Dark Thirty comes to mind for interrogation, Argo is a good foreign affairs example — with bonus points for an Iran connection as this film does). Through these films and others, we’ve gotten a good sense of the horrors and terror that can unfold at the hands of a captor, but what Rosewater brings to the table is something new.
Directed by Jon Stewart (host of The Daily Show) and based off the true story of Maziar Bahari (the journalist who was arrested in Iran in 2009, portrayed in this film by Gael García Bernal), you knew this film would be hard-hitting. And while there is a political angle to the film, I think much more emphasis is place on the experience. Bahari came in for a Q&A after the screening and said how he wasn’t trying to give one definitive viewpoint on matters and broadly state this is how all journalists are treated. He was telling his story and what he went through.
It’s this personality that comes through in the film and what makes it so gripping. The torture scenes aren’t the most brutal you’ll ever see (Zero Dark Thirty easily tops that list) but there are moments that make you grimace and squirm in your seat. The psychological torture and being forced to wear a blindfold for a majority of the film delivers more of a terrifying blow.
But the aspect that I found most interesting, and rarely seen before, was Bahari conjuring up hope and fighting through his torture so he could make it out someday. There were tough times where it seemed like Bahari would break and be totally lost, and in fact there was a point where Bahari caved and filmed a confession for television. But there was also a part of him (symbolized by visions of his father and sister) that fought. This fight in Bahari was often externalized through humor, something you never see in a film on interrogation. But it was this humor, this lighthearted element that gave Rosewater a different perspective from what I’ve seen before. And this new perspective was eye-opening in many ways, the biggest being that torture isn’t just about what happens in the interrogation room, it’s also about what happens once your back in your cell. Sometimes that solitary confinement can take an even bigger toll on you, and sometimes it can lead to the genesis of hope and a will to fight.
THE BAD: While Jon Stewart did a great job with Rosewater, especially considering it was his directorial debut, there are a few parts to the film that are either bad choices or poorly executed. The first is setting the first act in flashback. The movie begins on “Day 1”, the day Bahari was arrested and we see him being shoved into a car and driven off. After he enters the car though, we flashback to about a week earlier with Bahari in London getting ready to fly to Iran to cover the elections.
Now this isn’t a major problem and some might not even view this as a problem at all, but I rarely feel that it’s effective to go this route at the beginning of a film. Just start in London and gradually build up up tension and conflict from there. We already know going into the film that Bahari will be arrested and thrown in jail, so having this serve as the opening to get us acquainted with who Bahari is, is unnecessary. Better to start with the human/family aspect of Bahari with his wife and unborn child in London to give us a sense of what he’s losing rather than start at a midpoint that we’re going to circle back to anyway. Keep the story moving forward rather than unnecessarily mixing things up. Having the arrest come at the beginning doesn’t add anything compared to it happening in a chronological order.
The other minor complaint I have is also mixed in with some praise. Stewart did something rather atypical with captioning. Parts of the film rely on spoken or written words in Farsi (the Iranian language) which therefore require English subtitles for the audiences in the U.S. Instead of providing just an English translation, Stewart would often provide Farsi captions first as the characters speak, followed by English captions after the sentence is completed.
That idea I think was executed well and is an example of Stewart trying something new and different. My complaints come with two of the other things Stewart tried that did really click. The first was the images on the sides of buildings and in windows as Bahari is walking through the streets in a sort of montage sequence in the beginning. The second was the depiction of social media (Twitter) during the uprising following the elections. Both ideas I think had good intentions, and the social media one particularly could have been very powerful considering the role it played in real life. But in both case the execution was a bit off. Instead of being swept away by the idea and going with the flow I found myself scratching my head consciously thinking about how odd these two effects looked. Not a good thing to be thinking when watching a film.
THE TAKEAWAY: Jon Stewart delivers a captivating film with Rosewater. Maziar Bahari’s story brings to light several things we don’t normally see in a film about interrogation and torture and Stewart’s alternate take on several Hollywood conventions pay off. While there are some head-scratching choices that were made, overall Rosewater is a film that will leave you trying to apply what you just saw to various aspects of your own life. As Bahari said, Rosewater isn’t trying to be the definitive film on torture, Iran, or any of the issues it covers; Rosewater is just one person’s experience. And this personal touch is what makes Rosewater so great.
Rosewater opens in theaters next Friday, November 14, 2014.
THE RATING: 4 out of 5