Jon Stewart has made such a career out of mocking the news that it's a bit of a shock to find that "Rosewater," his debut film as a writer-director, is so earnest and straightforward you'd guess it was directed by Dan Rather and not the host of Comedy Central's congenitally irreverent "The Daily Show."
Adapted from "Then They Came for Me: A Family's Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival," journalist Maziar Bahari's memoir of the 118 days he spent as a political prisoner in Tehran's dreaded Evin prison, "Rosewater" is by and large every bit as serious as its subject matter would indicate.
And Stewart acquits himself solidly, though not thrillingly, as a beginning director, doing especially well in the film's involving central section dealing with Bahari's time in prison, where the filmmaking is as compelling as the feature's intentions are admirable.
FOR THE RECORD:
"Rosewater" actor: In the Nov. 14 Calendar section, a review of the film "Rosewater" identified the actor playing Maziar Bahari's father as Nasser Faris. That role was played by actor Haluk Bilginer. Faris played the role of Haj Agha. —
Stewart first became interested in this story when it turned out that a silly mock interview Bahari gave to "Daily Show's" "espionage correspondent" Jason Jones came up during his prison interrogation. It was Stewart's determination to bring the journalist's harrowing and heartening story to the world, not an overwhelming passion for cinema in and of itself, that led to the film and likely accounts for its sober, even didactic, tone.
Another shock, also soon overcome, is having Bahari played not by an Iranian actor but by the face of contemporary Mexican cinema, the protean Gael García Bernal. But Bernal is such a graceful, appealing performer that we soon forget that he is not the Tehran native that the protagonist is.
"Rosewater" begins on June 21, 2009, the day of Bahari's arrest. Members of the Revolutionary Guard visit him where he's staying at the house of his mother (the veteran Shohreh Aghdashloo) and play film critic with his DVD collection. "The Sopranos"? "Porno." "Teorema" by Pasolini? "Porno." Music by Leonard Cohen? "Jewish porno." A limited critical vocabulary for sure.
At this point, "Rosewater" flashes back 11 days to the London flat where Bahari lives with his pregnant fiancée, Paola (Claire Foy). He's about to leave for Tehran to cover the upcoming presidential election for Newsweek, and though she's worried — the last time he'd visited was three months earlier to attend the funeral of a sister imprisoned for being a Communist — he assures her he'll be back in a week. Famous last words.
Once on the ground in Iran, Bahari hooks up with a driver named Davood (Dimitri Leonidas), who shows him how resistance to the regime is building among young people who get information on the West from satellite TV ("Dish University") and insists that "we are the educated, we want a life."
On election day itself, with incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad running against the more liberal Mir-Hossein Mousavi, evidence of fraud leads to massive protests, and it's the act of filming the government's violent reaction and passing the footage on to the BBC that lands Bahari in prison. (For those who are interested, the excellent documentary "The Green Wave" covered this situation in absorbing detail.)
While this first part of "Rosewater" is more standard issue than compelling, the film's involvement quotient goes up once Bahari is imprisoned in Evin, a surreal place where the prisoners are routinely blindfolded and placed in the hands of an interrogator he nicknames Rosewater for the scent the man routinely wears.
As played by Danish actor Kim Bodnia, Rosewater is an unnerving presence, a true believer who also must deal with pressures from his superiors, all of whom seem genuinely convinced that Bahari is a spy working on orders from the Zionists in the West and conniving with the CIA, Mossad and MI6.
"Rosewater" is strongest in detailing the insidious mind games that Bahari's captors play, how effectively this kind of pressure and isolation can be in changing even a sane person's perceptions of reality.
With no contact with the outside world, Bahari ends up taking comfort from visions he has of his sister Maryam (Golshifteh Farahani) and his father, Haj Agha (Nasser Faris), who'd also been imprisoned. He tells his son to "believe in something — it is your only hope," while her advice "that it is they who are afraid use their weakness" leads to Bahari's most successful ploy.
"Rosewater" ends well for Bahari, and while that's the reality as well as a relief, the way it's portrayed on screen plays too self-congratulatory for its own good. If you are a filmmaker, being on the side of the angels can be something of a double-edged sword.
MPAA rating: R for language, violence
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Playing: In limited release