November 25, 2014 at 9:19 am | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

One could be forgiven for worrying that Jon Stewart might direct his first movie with the same sense of intellectual superiority and moral indignation that infuses the Daily Show. That’s not to say his sensibilities are not all over “Rosewater;” they just show up in less expected ways. Never so much so as in the deft way he brings absurdity into dark places, making us laugh in scenes where other directors would try and make us squirm. Stewart’s world view tends more toward John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig & the Angry Inch”) than Todd Solondz (“Happiness”). Mitchell, who has a deep faith in the basic goodness of humanity, is not really so angry and Solondz is far from happy. Stewart shares Mitchell’s faith that everything will work out and that, to quote King, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” This sense infuses “Rosewater” and gives it a sweet optimism, even in its most bitter moments. This is both praise and criticism. Steward is no cynic and this film is the furthest thing from torture porn, however, it also lacks bite. Perhaps, I am jaded by modern cinema but I never felt the sense of urgency or danger I expected to. I don’t need graphic torture scenes and I was grateful not to have them but I wanted to feel more of Maziar Bahari’s suffering. Bahari was played well enough by Gael Garcia Bernal (“Y Tu Mamá También,” “Bad Education”).  I give Bernal immense credit for managing to bury his Mexican accent and speak English with an Iranian accent; I have no idea how difficult that must be. However, while his performance was solid here, it didn’t resonate the way I wanted it to. I always felt on the surface, observing rather than feeling and, in a movie like this, that feels like a loss. Kim Bodnia, who played his interrogator Javadi, is another matter. Bodnia, a Dutch actor I am unfamiliar with, was the core of the film. He managed to appear cruel and frightened, powerful and panicked, all in the same moment. Without it ever being said, he was so clearly an inadequate and unhappy person stuck in a giant political machine. The revelation of the film was the humane way it dealt with his character. Perhaps there is more intention there than one might initially think. The film begins with a quote about the smell of sweat and rosewater being associated with religious piety. That is the only overt reference to the film’s title. Yet, I know from my reading, that Bahari’s only real sense of his interrogator was that he smelled of rosewater. So, the title would suggest that the focal point of the film may actually be Javadi (and what he represents) and not Bahari (and what he represents). In that sense, the film may be clever on a whole other level. The imprisonment of dissidents on trumped up charges is always more commentary on the state than on the citizen.  Likewise, Bahari’s arrest (and this film) ultimately tell us more about his interrogator and Iran than they ever do about him. Raising the question, who is the one, in the end, really being interrogated?


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