Rosewater

February 20, 2015
Gael García Bernal in 'Rosewater' (2014)
Gael García Bernal in 'Rosewater' (2014)

Jon Stewart’s Rosewater can hardly fail to conjure thoughts of Peter Greste’s 400 days spent in an Egyptian prison for no apparent reason than having done his job as a journalist. Maziar Bahari suffered a similar fate, being imprisoned by the Iranian government from June to October, 2009, on trumped-up charges of espionage.

Stewart, as you probably know, is an American comedian famed for his hosting of the Daily Show, which he has just given up after 16 years. Stewart’s personal stake in this story is that Jason Jones from the Daily Show filmed a comic interview with Bahari in a Tehran café, which was later used as ‘evidence’ of the journalist’s spying activities. In the interview Jones posed as a spy, asking hard questions of the London-based reporter who had returned to his birthplace to cover Iran’s 2009 election campaign for Newsweek.

For Bahari, his arrest is a harsh reminder that authoritarian regimes have no sense of humour. He will remain for the next 118 days, subject to solitary confinement, beatings, and forms of psychological torture. He gives his interrogator the name “Rosewater”, after the fragrance he uses. This is not emphasised in the film, so one might emerge from the cinema still puzzled about the title.

It’s slightly odd that Bahari, an Iranian expatriate, should be played by Mexican actor, Gael García Bernal, whose main qualification for the job seems to be his sense of physical frailty. One can’t fault Bernal’s performance, even if he never seems entirely believable as a Persian.

This is the first feature that Stewart has written and directed, and it is no better than a tradesmanlike. We know that Bahari will eventually be released, and this removes any possibility of suspense. The scenes of the election campaign, and the long drawn-out prison sequences are handled with efficiency but little inspiration. There is some vague comedy as Bahari finds he can quell the violent impulses of his interrogator by making up salacious stories about massage parlours, but it is humour tinged with pathos. As the makers of The Interview found, it’s much easier to make jokes about tyrannical regimes when you’re not enjoying their hospitality.

Rosewater
Directed by Jon Stewart
Written by Jon Stewart, after a memoir by Maziar Bahari & Aimee Molloy
Starring Gael García Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Dimitri Leonidas,
USA, rated M, 103 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 21st February, 2015.