https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=27630&reviewer=371

Rosewater

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 11/26/14 16:25:14

"Not as urgent on film as in real life."
3 stars (Average)

I want more from "Rosewater", but I'm not exactly sure what I want more of. More obvious suffering and torment on the part of its protagonist would certainly drive the point home better, but demanding that seems callous and sadistic. A more traditional narrative that reduces real-life events to an early digestible story would do the people and events depicted a disservice. A broader perspective might lose the point entirely. And yet, it's hard to shake the feeling that this fairly well-made movie should make a viewer feel more, whether that more be anger, fear, or hope.

It's the story of Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal), a London-based journalist who returns to the family home in Tehran to cover the 2012 election for Newsweek. Contrary to his initial plans, he sticks around to cover the protests afterward, and at least one of the images he captures on video leads the police to arrest him as a spy, to be thrown in jail and face daily interrogations by "specialist" Javadi (Kim Bodina), although Bahari is not privy to his name and, blindfolded, recognizes him by the scent of rosewater.

It is established early on that Javadi's superiors wish to score a propaganda victory with Bahari's televized confession, so the usual physical abuse is taken off the table. As mentioned above, it's not as if I want to watch a good man be tortured, but the lack of certain obvious cues means that first-time filmmaker Jon Stewart must work a bit harder to really make the audience feel what Bahari is going through, and he's maybe not quite up to the task yet. The audience will see Bahari blindfolded but not experience the disorientation or sensory deprivation; regular trims to his hair and beard keep them from marking the passage of time unless a caption appears on screen.

Too bad; if that had been working, some of the things Stewart does to accentuate his themes might work even better. There's a big moment of realization at the climax that would have worked even better if the audience felt Bahari's isolation more keenly. It wouldn't just be a catharsis, but would have let humorous bits that seem a bit inappropriate drive the point of his captors' lack of imagination and inflexible world-view home. The film has quite a few good little moments throughout, from the casual way Stewart and his cast present the Irani characters (even Javadi at times) as very easy to relate to right through an on-the-nose but genuine-seeming scene at the very end.

Bahari himself is a bit of a blank at times. Gael Garcia Bernal initially plays him as seeming like he doesn't know what he's getting into despite the family background delivered via narration our the scenes that suggest a more seasoned, pragmatic journalist. Perhaps the idea is that he is excited to see change coming to Iran and is getting ahead of himself, but that specific attitude doesn't quite come through. He is quite good as the captivity starts to wear on Bahari, and Kim Bodina makes an impressive complement, making Javadi businesslike but still committed. Shohreh Aghdashloo is reliably good as Maziar's mother, and Amir El-Masry managed to intrigue as a western-raised/educated young man who nevertheless supports the regime, despite relatively little screen time.

Perhaps that guy's story would have been a more interesting movie. Journalists being imprisoned for reporting the truth aren't trivial - far from it! - but movies about that happening can seem that way. Stewart has made a good movie here, but it's possible that it had the raw material for a great one.

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