Rosewater (London Film Festival 2014) Review
Before Jon Stewart took over as host of The Daily Show, he was an MTV chat show host in a leather jacket whose stand-up career mostly avoided political issues. He makes another transition with his directorial debut Rosewater, a competent – albeit unspectacular – retelling of how London-based journalist Maziar Bahari found himself locked up in a Tehran prison for 118 days under dubious charges.The 2009 incident is ideal of Stewart seeing how it covers many of his favourite topics – journalism, foreign affairs, freedom of speech – but the first-time filmmaker has a vested interest because of his own inadvertent role in the arrest. When Bahari (Gael García Bernal) flies to Iran to report on the elections and subsequent public riots for Newsweek, he also finds time for a brief interview with The Daily Show – not knowing the Iranian government would take the satirical footage at face value to build accuse him of espionage. (The other bits of evidence used against him include a Pasolini DVD and a Leonard Cohen vinyl album, so who knows what would happen if he owned a 24 box-set.)Stewart floods the screen with shots of the streets as if to signify Rosewater is the real deal and unlike the greenscreen sketches on The Daily Show. But actually, it’s shot in Jordan, which isn’t exactly perfect, and neither is the film’s second or third act. Once Bahari is sent into solitary confinement, Rosewater changes tact and stays inside the puzzled journalist’s cell as he’s interrogated by a menacing agent (Kim Bodnia) nicknames “Rosewater” because of his distinctive scent. The pair’s psychological battle is too playful to be a duel, and too flimsy for any chess comparisons. Both actors bring gentle humanity to their respective roles, but never convey the familiarity of two men who unwillingly spend four months battling wits in an impossible argument. Put simply, they lack the fire of when Stewart guests on Fox TV.Rosewater teases its theme of claustrophobia without truly examining the dread or even boredom of Bahari being stuck in a cell without knowing when – or if – he will ever see his pregnant wife again. Instead, Stewart taps into the journalist’s sense of humour at the situation’s absurdity; he bounces off the wall to a mental recollection of Leonard Cohen, and laughs out loud during cross-examination. There are however extreme lulls when the mood becomes repetitive, making the simplistic filming style harder to overlook. Really, Stewart makes an intriguing observation that the two men are imprisoned in different ways – if you see “Rosewater” as a victim of governmental brainwash destined for the losing side against an uprising – but the film ironically doesn’t have much else to go.’Rosewater’ is playing London Film Festival 2014 as part of the Debate Gala. Ticket information can be found here.