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Jon Stewart usually flaunts his wit in front of the camera for all to see, but he has now demonstrated an ability to do the same without showing his face.
Stewart’s directorial and screenwriting debut, Rosewater, boasts a strong script balancing humor and deeper contemplations of modern media. The story, adapted from Maziar Bahari’s memoir Then They Came for Me, tracks the uproar surrounding Iran’s 2009 presidential elections and journalist Bahari’s subsequent imprisonment for suspicion of being a spy. Gael García Bernal plays Bahari, shifting from an energetic, hopeful reporter to a submissive prisoner as the Iranian regime seizes control of his life.
Stewart has a closet full of Emmys because of his sharp, poignant tongue, and he uses this film as a platform to mock everything from Newsweek to New Jersey and erotic massage parlors. More than that, though, he unravels distinctions between the eastern and western worlds through Bahari’s inner and outer dialogues. Bahari’s voice stands out in the context of 2009 Iran, intellectual like the oppressive leaders but skeptical like the oppressed, and Stewart capitalizes on this to make the character’s language simultaneously amusing and incisive.
While he clearly has potential behind the camera, at times it feels like Stewart could do more. Once Bahari enters the government’s prison, the story largely focuses on his interrogation sessions with the volatile Rosewater, played by Kim Bodnia in a standout supporting role. There’s only so much for a director to do within the barren walls of this confinement, but nevertheless Stewart allows Bahari’s suffering to feel redundant.
That being said, Bahari’s transition from outsider to prisoner remains striking. Early in the film, he is simply a visitor in his ancestral homeland. Stewart makes this clear in one of his best shots: Bahari fixes his camera by the side of the road in advance of the election, while his acquaintance Davood prays prostrated next to him. .
With Stewart controlling the pen and camera, one had to expect fascinating takes on the western media and its appropriate and inappropriate behaviors. Bahari’s interest in cameras and their power goes all the way back to his childhood relationship with his sister–a political prisoner since deceased–who begged him to consume as many movies and albums as possible so that he might see beyond the rigid structures of Tehran. By the time he’s grown, he’s utilizing his camera as a weapon. When his captors seize this tool, Stewart uses his own in the same manner, compelling his audience to witness the desperate atrocities of a failing regime.
Armed with a captivating story and dynamic script, Stewart did not need to do much with his lensed weapon. García Benal’s versatile performance does more than enough to make up for the intermittent blandness of Stewart’s direction. Like Bahari in the chaos following the corrupt election, Stewart simply lets the striking scenes do the talking, rendering artistic cinematography unnecessary for much of the film’s bulk.
Rosewater relays a story more than it tells one, using ever-present media to reveal a harrowing tale. Other projects may allow Stewart to explore further with his camera, but here the device simply serves its basic purpose. Everyone is used to seeing and hearing Stewart’s daily commentary, but with this film we have to look and listen more closely. His vision may still be murky, but his voice rings out loud and clear.
Images via filmoria.co.uk