Maziar Bahari (left) whose story inspired Rosewater and director Jon Stewart
USA (103 mi) 2014 d: Jon Stewart Official Facebook
USA (103 mi) 2014 d: Jon Stewart Official Facebook
For as comically inventive as Jon Stewart is on television, this is an abysmal failure, a film that’s actually hard not to walk out on before it’s halfway done as you already know the outcome, so it’s predictable as hell. And therein lies the problem, the utter conventionality of the picture, never for a single second rising above preconceived notions and cliché’s, offering zero insight into Islamic culture or the history of Iran, but instead continually reinforcing American stereotypes. This is as elementary as it gets and is an embarrassment to the intelligence of anyone that sees it. Without knowing the director, one might even think this was a propaganda piece made by someone from FOX and/or MSNBC News, as it’s so ethically self-righteous in its black and white depictions, showing no moral ambiguity, no gray lines, where the only tone offered is seen through an all right or wrong lens. Ostensibly the film is about the suspicions of heavy vote fraud in the 2009 Iranian Presidential elections, where the overall western view, based on sources on the ground, is that incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole the election, as Iran has retreated into a totalitarian, police state mentality where freedom of expression has been crushed, which accounts for why the two leading Iranian filmmakers, Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, continue to live and work outside of the repressive artistic restrictions in Iran. This pattern of political repression is similar to what the Soviets, Cambodians, and Chinese did under communist regimes through the 70’s, arresting all the students, intelligentsia and professionals that had the capability and insight to understand a better way of life, which in a Kafkaesque sense was frowned upon, as totalitarian systems must systematically enforce control through fear tactics and repressive measures to ensure obedience, not allowing thoughts of democracy or freedom, which are perceived as failed western models. When the Supreme Leader, a leadership position chosen after the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, remains a religious figure who is both head of state and the highest ranking political and religious authority, in accordance with their constitution, one might expect moral rigidity, as one might imagine Italy overseen by a Catholic Pope ruling over the military and all political matters. It’s a significantly different concept than what America had in mind when they envisioned democracy. This distinction is simply never addressed in the film, as if this was too complicated for the audience to fathom.
Instead we have a fairly wretched example of America’s viewpoint on display throughout, which gets a bit ridiculous after awhile, especially when the cavalry comes to the rescue. The film is based on the 2011 memoirs of Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari entitled Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity and Survival, where he was sent into Iran as a Newsweek magazine correspondent for a week to cover the elections. At least initially, in the run-up to the election, the film expresses the euphoria and elation of Arab Spring (that historically “followed” this event), where demonstrators take to the streets in hopes for a better future. Bahari is played by Mexican actor Gael García Bernal, seen leaving his pregnant wife in America, arriving for interviews with spokespersons on both sides of the election, where the derisive Ahmadinejad spokesperson is seen as a closeted Stalinist, while the young students placing their hopes on reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi are young and enthusiastic, proudly demonstrating no fear in front of the camera, where they have obviously subverted the current religious theocracy in their own ways, taking Bahari to a rooftop filled with satellite dishes to western media outlets. In this manner, they have conceived an idea of what their country might aspire to, but their hopes quickly collapse when the election results show Ahmadinejad with nearly two-thirds of the vote, making him the runaway victor. Stunned Iranians take to the streets in massive demonstrations claiming the results are fraudulent, but the Supreme Leader calls the voting results valid, labeling the victory a “divine assessment,” while claiming the street protests illegal, leading to extreme measures used to stop the protestors, including several reported deaths and mass arrests, including Bahari, who spends the next 118 days in captivity. Visited each day by an interrogator, Kim Bodnia, known as Rosewater (for the smell of his scented cologne), who forces him to wear a blindfold while he’s physically and psychologically tortured on a daily basis, where the tone of the film quickly grows predictable, using conventional torture porn methods so popular in Hollywood today, always exaggerating the sadistic element, as if that’s suitable family entertainment these days. In addition, all the student dissidents filmed by Bahari are arrested as well, as the government attempts to round up and eliminate their opposition.
While incarcerated, Bahari envisions his dead father, Haluk Bilginer, easily the best thing in the film from Palme d’Or winner Winter Sleep (Kis uykusu), who was arrested and tortured under the Shah in the 50’s for being a communist, who instructs his son to tell them nothing, to hold fast, to give them no satisfaction whatsoever, while also recalling flashbacks of visiting his older sister Maryam (Golshifteh Farahani) in jail, as she was imprisoned under the 1980’s post-revolutionary regime of Ayatollah Khomeini, again for being a communist, where we begin to see how others in his family suffered for his future, where he’s now well-educated and politically sophisticated, living a comfortable life capable of enjoying the freedoms that they never had. Half the film dwells on the dreariness of his solitary confinement, which is predictably bleak, as they attempt to break his will, effectively cutting off all ties with the outside world, isolating him into a psychological state of humiliation and mental confusion where he loses all hope, where his father encourages him, “Believe in something. It’s your only hope.” Initially Bahari finds it absurd, feeling he has nothing to hide, nothing to confess, though they insist he is a western imperialist spy, going through his computer and personal belongings, finding every item an example of hedonism and western ideology. The loneliness of the ordeal takes its toll, however, where his father acknowledges in a humorous aside, “I forgot how fucking boring this place is.” Being a relatively good-natured guy, Bahari finds his only plan is to cooperate and give them what they want, memorizing a rehearsed speech where he apologizes and admits to his crimes, which is of course televised across the nation. But when this doesn’t produce the desired effect, as there is instead worldwide outrage and condemnation at his arrest, they throw him back into solitary, which only emboldens him, as he finally realizes he is not alone. Of course, this is purely amateur interrogation techniques to reconnect him to the outside world, to throw him a lifeline. The sight of Hillary Clinton on CNN News expressing her shock and personal condemnation for his arrest is followed by a B-movie montage of all the international media outlets focusing their attention on this single event, where all that’s missing are the flag waving sounds of “Let freedom ring” from “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” Kelly Clarkson Sings 'My Country, 'Tis of Thee' at ... - YouTube (3:23). What follows, of course, is an unlikely scenario for all the others who continue to be held in detention who aren’t so well known, who continue to have to endure this brutalizing sort of Stalinist ordeal. Unfortunately, it all feels like painting by the numbers, where it’s a film of stereotypes and cliché’s that becomes heavyhanded in its own dogmatic intent.