Jon Stewart's "Rosewater" is about a deathly serious subject -- the Iranian government's 2009 imprisonment of Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari.
But, as Telluride Film Festival audiences discovered at the political drama's first public screening Friday night, Stewart has brought his distinctive comedic DNA as host of "The Daily Show" into his screenwriting and directorial debut.
With an amusing interrogation scene about erotic massages, some wry commentary about the declining state of the newsmagazine ("There are better ways of doing propaganda," Bahari tells his captors) and no less than three jokes about New Jersey, "Rosewater" walks the same line Stewart's Comedy Central show does in acknowledging both the gravity and the absurdity of world events. Like "The Daily Show," "Rosewater" leavens a somber reality with humor.
"This movie is about the cost of oppression," Stewart said in an introduction before the screening in a middle school gym in the Rocky Mountain town. "This is not just an Iranian problem, but a world problem."
Based on Bahari's 2011 memoir "Then They Came For Me," "Rosewater" stars Gael Garcia Bernal as the Tehran-born Canadian journalist who was arrested and brutally interrogated over 118 days in connection with reporting he conducted on the Iranian election protests in 2009. Shohreh Agdashloo plays Bahari's beleaguered mother, who has already seen both her husband and daughter imprisoned by different Iranian regimes.
In the days leading up to his arrest, Bahari had participated in a satirical interview on "The Daily Show" which his captors presented as evidence that he was in communication with an American spy.
"Being in television, we assumed this was all about us," Stewart said of how he became involved in telling Bahari's story.
Distributor Open Road films will next take "Rosewater" to the Toronto International Film Festival before beginning to roll it out theatrically Nov. 7.
In a Q&A conducted after the screening by former New Yorker staff writer Mark Danner, Stewart, Bahari and Garcia Bernal described the leap of faith that went into making the movie together.
Shot for $10 million in Jordan in the summer of 2013 as the Syrian civil war was exploding 45 minutes away, "Rosewater" tested Stewart, his cast and crew.
"We had very little time, very little money, it was 95 degrees and it was Ramadan, so people were fasting," Stewart said. "And the good news was, I had never done it before."
The film takes its name from Bahari's interrogator -- because the journalist was blindfolded, the main feature he noticed about the man, played with surprising and sometimes comic vulnerability by Danish actor Kim Bodnia, was that he smelled of rosewater.
"Rosewater" contains scenes meant to dislodge certain prejudices Western audiences might have about Iran. In one scene, Bahari's driver, a playful and appealing subversive played by British actor Dimitri Leonidas, is revealed praying by the side of the road; in another, Rosewater lays out a persuasive argument for the Iranian state's paranoia toward Western journalists.
"I did not want this film to be about, 'the religious are the persecutors,'" Stewart said.
Stewart and Garcia Bernal, who is Mexican, both addressed the fact that they are outsiders telling an Iranian story, with Stewart saying "Rosewater" is "not authentic in the way a great Iranian filmmaker would make."
"I'm not from Iran, I've never been to Iran.... I could only work from empathy," Garcia Bernal said of his performance.
Stewart also acknowledged artistic license he took with Bahari's story, injecting doubt in his main character that was not really there for the sake of narrative structure.
"My mind works in joke structure -- the structure of this movie is 'The Aristocrats,'" Stewart said, a reference to the classic, usually taboo-defying dirty joke that depends on the contrast between its highbrow name and lowbrow subject matter.
"In the book [Bahari] doesn't get out," Stewart joked. "I thought it was better to have a happy ending. It was just something I talked over with the studio."