Isolation can be torture. Loneliness can be it’s own form of insanity. And if someone is forced into solitary confinement and threatened with physical harm for the crime of daring to broadcast a completely true news report, that torment can threaten one’s sanity. A real life example of this is brought to us by whip smart comedian Jon Stewart in the new film Rosewater.
Gael Garcia Bernal shines as Maziar Bahari, a reporter for Newsweek magazine who returns home to Iran to cover their first “democratic” elections. He stays with his stoic mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and hooks up with some outspoken students. They are running an illegal satellite dish broadcast farm just for the purpose of getting media from outside of Iran distributed among the people. But Bahari quite smartly doesn’t want to cover that. He knows where the lines between what can and can’t be shown on air without being targeted by the government, lie. The elections occur, featuring those inspiring raised blue thumbs that we all remember seeing on the news a few years back. Proud Iranians were showing off that they were finally enjoying an actual say in their future. And all indications were President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was facing some serious competition from the challenger Mousavi.
Yet when the election results came in with a whopping majority for Ahmadinejad, it was largely seen as a bald-faced theft of the election. Protests erupted and Bahari got footage of it. For airing it on the BBC, he was arrested by the Iranian government for treason. This film is a portrayal of his prolonged stay in prison. Jon Stewart recognized the irony in Bahari’s situation. At different points when the Iranian interrogators are questioning him, they grill him about some fake interview footage that was created for The Daily Show. Jason Jones even plays himself when they recreate this interview in the film. The government had no sense of humor regarding this. Early in the film, they are grilling him about all sorts of American media he happens to have in his home. They classify his DVD set of The Sopranos as porn. They don’t believe that Newsweek is a real magazine, but instead accuse it of being a fringe piece of propaganda for the American government. The whole story begins as Kafka filtered through a Middle Eastern lens.
However, Bahari’s confinement went well beyond a comedic bureaucratic snafu. He was physically and mentally tormented during his stay. His captors told him several times that he would die in jail. He was told that his wife and mother didn’t care about him anymore. He was beaten and given long stretches of contact with no one. That portrayal of loneliness is what makes the most impact in the film. Bernal is moving as he portrays the depression and boredom of confinement. Bernal is really the actor that sells this film.
Kim Bodnia as Bahari’s primary captor is alternately as scary as he is comical. Mostly he is called on to manipulate and control his prisoner. But the best part of Rosewater as a movie is the argument it makes for how this act of political imprisonment diminishes the jailor as well as the jailed. His humanity has suffered some rot. But also, in some ways he is as scared and confined as those of whom he is in charge.
Rosewater’s closest comparison in film is probably In The Name of the Father. While the reason for jailing in that story was hugely different, the experience of mental anguish being portrayed by prolonged confinement is similar. The earlier film is a better one that this new one. But Stewart is serviceable as a first time director, the subject couldn’t be more timely, and Bernal’s performance is engaging.