Onstage at the Odeon West End, Jon Stewart introduced his freshman feature, Rosewater, amidst a sea of self-deprecating remarks. Stewart repeatedly played down his experience and suggested that the shoot had been some sort of maverick free-for-all. Obviously, this was a load of smoke – Stewart is intelligent and has spent his entire career in media, and he makes the transition to feature film director seamlessly. Rosewater is the story of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian journalist who was imprisoned in Tehran for five months after covering the contested elections for Newsweek. On paper, it has the feel of Argo: an awards-baiting America-centric look at Iran, but, off the paper, the film does something very strange (though not entirely unexpected). It’s funny. There are rarely more than a few minutes which go by before another well-constructed laugh (unlike Argo, Rosewater doesn’t have a comic sub-plot but utilises the fact that clever people’s dialogue is often very funny) and that weaves through the story’s overt seriousness.
Gael Garcia Bernal plays Bahari, and if that raises alarm bells then there’s more to come. The film’s chief antagonist, the eponymous ‘Rosewater’, is played by Kim Bodnia – a Danish actor most famous for The Bridge – and there’s the slight sense that if you’re swarthy and have a foreign accent, you’re qualified to play an Iranian. That said, the performances are terrific across the board (with the exception of a stilted Claire Foy) – Garcia Bernal, in a role somewhat similar to the one he played in the Oscar-nominated No, nails Bahari’s sense of humour and quiet, breaking intelligence. Bodnia makes for a very funny captor, which dilutes the impact of the torture scenes, but makes the long spells of incarceration more palatable.
Ultimately, the film comes down to Stewart and Bahari’s interpretation of events. The film strays into triteness on a couple of occasions and, perhaps, has more to say about the past than the future, but these are fairly small qualms. Stewart excels in the small touches – his use of music, for example, cleverly introduces questions of East versus West, and even Islam versus Judaism, as well as managing to blur the line between diegetic and non-diegetic sound. The film looks fantastically authentic, despite holding back on speaking very much actual Persian (perhaps because of their international cast) and the production design has an air of ‘seriousness’ that makes me certain that Rosewater‘s name will be mentioned come awards season. But perhaps it’ll be a film too early for Stewart; though it certainly builds anticipating for his sophomore effort.
A funny and engaging film. Well acted and written, Jon Stewart’s first feature film delivers a refreshingly watchable portrait of tyranny. A fine start.
|Starring:||Gael Garcia Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Claire Foy, Dmitri Leonidas|
|Running time:||Under 2 hours|
|Certificate:||I'd guess 15|