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D: Jon Stewart / 103m

Cast: Gael García Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Haluk Bilginer, Golshifteh Farahani, Claire Foy, Dimitri Leonidas, Nasser Faris, Jason Jones

An Iranian-born journalist, Maziar Bahari (Bernal), travels to Tehran in June 2009 to cover the Presidential election for Newsweek.  In the run up he speaks to supporters of both President Ahmadinejad and his main rival Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and while his own opinions favour Mousavi, he remains outwardly neutral in his reporting, even when on the day of the election he finds himself barred from an open polling station at the same time that news is being broadcast that Ahmadinejad has won.

In the days that follow, Bahari films on the streets as the Iranian people protest against what they feel have been rigged elections.  During one such protest, Bahari films a crowd outside a military barracks that come under fire from the militia in the building.  He arranges for the footage to be seen outside Iran.  On June 21, while staying with his mother, Moloojoon (Aghdashloo), Bahari is arrested and taken to Evin prison where he is charged with being a spy.

Kept in solitary confinement, Bahari is regularly taken to a room where he is made to sit facing a wall but with a blindfold on.  Here his interrogator (Bodnia) keeps asking him who he is spying for, and is it with the aim of trying to undermine and/or overthrow the Iranian government.  Bahari rejects the idea, and does his best to convince his interrogator that he is just a journalist but the interrogator, in turn, rejects his assertions.  Days pass in this way as various forms of psychological and physical torture are used to break Bahari and get him to confess.  Eventually, after several weeks he makes a televised confession that he is a spy.

Despite being what the Iranian authorities have wanted all along, the confession serves only to highlight Bahari’s plight on an international level, and helps his pregnant wife, Paola (Foy), with her campaign to get him released.  Back in the prison, the interrogations continue but now Bahari begins to regain some level footing by making up stories about his travels, stories that his interrogator believes wholeheartedly.  And then, on October 20, after a hundred and eighteen days, Bahari is offered a chance at freedom: agree to be a spy for the Iranian government and he will be released.

Rosewater - scene

Based on the memoir, Then They Came for Me, that Bahari co-wrote with Aimee Molloy, Rosewater is a compelling, occasionally provocative drama that benefits from solid performances, a clever script courtesy of first-time writer/director Stewart, and a skilful re-creation of the events that led up to Bahari’s confinement.  The movie begins with Bahari’s arrest, a tense scene that carries an uncomfortable hint of menace towards his mother.  From there we flash back to Bahari preparing to leave London for Tehran; the audience gets to see how confidently Stewart is able to set up the story, explaining concisely the basic political situation in Iran, and the importance for the people of the election.

The concise nature of the opening scenes allows the audience to spend more time with Bahari in Evin prison, and it’s here that the movie explores the surprising nature of captivity and its effect on the individual.  Bahari is never conventionally tortured.  There are no beatings, no physical restraints put in place (other than the blindfold), and only one attempt at violence that is conducted more out of frustration on the interrogator’s part than from any premeditated action.  But it has a profound psychological effect on Bahari, and Stewart – aided greatly by Bernal – shows how he did his best to survive by creating interior dialogues with his deceased father and sister.  These scenes are among the most effective in the movie as, for the most part, despite it seeming that Bahari is able to come up with a constructive way of dealing with his captors, by and large he’s unable to do so.  These dialogues allow him to feel and be strong in his own mind, but not in the interrogation room.  It’s a subtle acknowledgment – that often, our strength is something we can only convince ourselves of – but one that Stewart pulls off with deliberately muted style.

With much of the prison scenes allowing little of the outside world to creep in, Bahari’s loneliness and isolation is powerfully presented, though as time goes on and he becomes almost inured to the passage of time, Stewart gradually opens up the movie to show us what’s been going on in the meantime.  Again, it’s a clever move, and adds to the sense that time is passing slowly (which, for Bahari, it must have done).  It’s not until a guard refers to him as “Mr Hillary Clinton” that we – and he – begin to realise that he’s not been quite as alone as it’s seemed.  From there the movie begins to gain pace as the prospect of Bahari’s release becomes more likely, and Stewart allows the tension to unwind.  It’s a slightly counter-intuitive approach but it works in the movie’s favour.

Rosewater - scene2

With Stewart so firmly in control of the material it’s good to see he’s also firmly in control of the performances.  Bernal is an actor who continually impresses, and here he inhabits Bahari with ease, displaying his nervousness and fear and desperation with conviction (though perhaps his best moment is when he dances around his cell to a song only he can hear).  It’s a measured, contemplative performance, one that brings a greater depth to Bahari as a man than audiences might expect.  As his nemesis, and user of the titular liquid, Bodnia is also on fine form, a more traditional style of interrogator who would usually favour a more physical approach, but who finds himself increasingly out of his comfort zone.  When Bahari talks about his “obsession” with sexual massages, his willingness to believe these stories is both comic and pathetic.  The two actors spar around each other with skill, and both are equally mesmerising in their scenes together.

The rest of the cast haven’t quite as much to do in comparison, though Leonidas stands out as Bahari’s “driver”, Davood, and Faris plays the interrogator’s boss with patronising detachment.  Aghdashloo and Bilginer are persuasive as always as Maziar’s parents, though as his sister, Farahani has too little screen time to make any real impression.  This being a Jon Stewart movie there’s also plenty of humour to be had in amongst all the drama, and one scene will have audiences laughing out loud thanks to Bernal and Bodnia’s skill as actors.  The photography is sharply detailed and the movie is brightly lit throughout, at odds with the more gloomy aspects of events.  There’s also an effective score courtesy of Howard Shore that adds weight to the emotional content, but doesn’t overwhelm it.  A couple of gripes aside – Bahari’s hair and beard remain the same throughout the entire hundred and eighteen days he’s imprisoned, the interrogator seems a little too out of his depth to be kept on board the whole time – this is riveting, engrossing stuff, and a triumph for all concerned.

Rating: 9/10 – Rosewater takes a tale of imprisonment and loss of personal freedom but somehow makes it completely accessible and not in the least claustrophobic, while still reinforcing the seriousness of the situation; a great debut for Stewart and one that  succeeds with apparent ease.