REVIEW: Rosewater | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Director: Jon Stewart

Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal,

Cert: 15

Run Time: 103 mins


In 2009, BBC and Newsweek journalist Mazair Bahari was captured and callously interrogated by the Iranian government. He was falsely accused of espionage and conspiring against them under orders from various organisations, such as ‘the CIA, Mossad, MI6 and Newsweek’. Bahari was actually documenting the presidential election battle mainly between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi. He was later released after a forced televised confession, via PressTV, aroused the attention of characters such as Hilary Clinton, and an amount of $300,000 bail was collected in campaigns for his release. This harrowing tale was later recorded as a critically-acclaimed memoir entitled Then They Came for Me. The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart praised the book as ‘incredible’ and geared up for Rosewater: his directorial debut.

Mexican actor Gael García Bernal (Amores Perros) is cast as the lead, Maziar Bahari. Bernal presents the unfortunate protagonist as an amiable academic, oozing with charisma. In moments of despair, Bernal’s placid countenance suggests promises of hope, his joyous sobs flood the heart with adulation.

He is expertly cast as the archetypal Odyssean hero.

Many have criticised Stewart for not casting an Iranian actor for the position of Maziar Bahari. However, Gael García Bernal has been cast twice as Che Guevara (in Fidel and The Motorcycle Diaries) and holds a history of involvement with the leftist, Mexican Zapatista army. His revolutionary representation, and faith in people, cannot be ignored. It isn’t about presentation of national identity that is important in this context, but the synergy of nations. This is a Mexican actor, in an American film, presenting a Canadian-Iranian journalist who works for a multi-national British broadcast syndicate. Rosewater is not just a representation of Bahari’s tale, it is an interpretation of the bigger picture, of the many journalists that are captured during their excursions, and the support that others can contribute. The moral of the film is written on the wall of the cell: you are not alone.  If someone passionate about representing the spirit of community, who should stop them?

it is an interpretation of the bigger picture, of the many journalists that are captured during their excursions, and the support that others can contribute

Like Spielberg’s Jaws, Rosewater doesn’t thrust the threat under our noses, but leaves it lurking over our shoulder while we cower in fearful anticipation. The filmic display of torture is imbued in rich verisimilitude. Stewart shows there is no need for swiftly edited cuts or a dramatic, vigorous soundtrack. The unsettling deprivation of human contact and inception of mental inertia, between the four walls of solitary confinement, outmatches adrenaline. It is more unsettling to see a man slowly slip sideways in to senselessness than see a man beaten in to submission, killed by tyrannical government officials. One shot in the film shows Bernal reaching for the sunlight in a shaded prison yard, with the obsidian shadows of barbed wire coils split the partition of sunlight and darkness. Credit to Bobby Bukowski for this beautifully crafted shot, epitomising Bahari’s longing for freedom.

Stewart’s treatment of sexuality reveals cultural contrast. ‘Put your scarf on’, demands the Iranian official known as the eponymous Rosewater, played by Kim Bodnia. He infiltrates Bahari’s mother’s house, who is played by Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog).  In this scene, she is not wearing her hijab. According to Islamic faith, Rosewater is offended by this mistake, yet her retort is perfect: ‘Do I provoke you?’ Stewart uses the context of a liberal, Western belief regarding female equality and plants it in the middle of 2009’s volatile Tehran. Aghdashloo’s character is vitalised with sagacious disbelief and mistrust of authority. She tells Bahari that the election brings the ‘same old shit’ with fixed vote results, which subsequently resulted in the Green Revolution. She is the voice of westernised, liberal ways, bringing a counter-balance to the draconian and corrupt Iranian government. This is Stewart’s flagrant satire.

Further lampooning is shown when the authorities present Sopranos and Empire Magazine in front of Bahari and accuse him of possessing pornography. Bahari is amused by such ludicrous obliviousness to this unfamiliar ‘pornography,’ and later conjures up fables of sensual, orgasmic massages to entice his interrogator, Rosewater. His puppy-dog face lights up with infantile excitement, as Bahari coos about a fictitious New Jersey massage parlour. In this moment we realise that licentious visions have overcome this Iranian man. So does Bahari. This is a seismic power shift in the narrative, yet the subtext commands a gravitas of alarming discrepancies between the two men’s attitude towards gender politics and sexuality. There is no accountability for the abhorrent sexualised phantasmagoria of women that the ultra-masculine Iranian official riffles through in his mind’s eye. This ignorance is not to be condemned, but commiserated.

Stewart is an astute social and political commentator, and has been initiated as an intelligent filmmaker. ‘If you look at [journalism] on a broader scale, it minimises evil and exploits ignorance,’ said Stewart, in an interview with Charlie Rose. ‘Evil is relatively rare, ignorance is epidemic. The cure for that is journalism, and expression.’  Stewart accurately picks up on the western’s consumption of the media, which is swiftly filling us with information, sometimes falsely. Journalism, when refined and carefully addressed, liberates knowledge and breaks through the misty window of façade media. It makes us feel connected in an era, said to be driven by fear. The irony here is that the imprisoned Bahari is vicariously liberated through his wife’s campaigns, while the sycophantic Iranian interrogator sloops in solitude. In Rosewater, the Iranian civilians do not possess the freedom of speech and their authoritarian rulers dictate discourse like an Orwellian dystopia. But it is this disconnection from the united Global Village that tears through the confidence in other nations, creating chasms of cultural disparity between the (already) tenuous ties between East and West.

Rosewater is now showing at the Tyneside Cinema.

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