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Reviews

Rosewater

Jeremy Clarke

Directed by Jon Stewart, Cert 15, 103 mins

The movie business is full of people who get into directing from all manner of unlikely backgrounds: Jon Stewart may be one of the strangest. From humble beginnings as a stand-up comedian in New York he went on to become a US institution via The Daily Show, a Comedy Central programme mixing current affairs and humour which during his fifteen year tenure as host won numerous awards. Rosewater's real life protagonist Maziar Bahari lauded the show for its complex, nuanced view of the Middle East. (Stewart announced in February his plans to leave the show this year.) His debut movie is a first rate thriller based on recent historical events which not only digs deep underneath the political reality of the story it explores but does so with a paramount sense of both storytelling artistry and uncompromising truth. Iranian born BBC journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal) returns to Tehran to cover that country's 2009 elections, interviewing opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. When ruling president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declares victory before all votes are counted, Bahari takes his camera out on the streets to film the resultant unrest, sending the footage back to London. He's soon arrested by the authorities for 'spying', put in solitary confinement and subjected to torture and interrogation by a man who calls himself 'Rosewater' (Danish actor Kim Bodnia). To the outside world, Bahari has disappeared. Following campaigning by his London-based wife and the Western media, he is eventually released after 118 days. This story sounds as though it could make a well-intentioned but really tedious movie. However, Stewart has a lot of fun with minor characters, such as Tehranians who see no issue with working beneath a rooftop sporting satellite dishes to receive illegal TV stations. The core of his film is undeniably its second half in which the journalist is imprisoned and the narrative, hitherto a tale of a reporter alongside local people investigating the activities of their powerful State, is pared down to a two-hander featuring prisoner and torturer. The casting of the two roles could hardly be more effective. Bernal comes to the role after such anti-authoritarian South American dramas as No (2012) and Even the Rain (2010). Bodnia's filmography includes characters pushed to their very limits in Danish thrillers like Pusher (1996) and Nightwatch (1994) (he later appeared in Nordic noir series The Bridge). Both are superb in Rosewater. Bernal perfectly embodies the intelligent journalist who struggles to maintain his integrity and dignity in the face of appalling deprivation. Bodnia equally perfectly embodies a man required by the system to treat his prisoner in whatever way will extract the desired confession. Without lavish production resources, the key scenes of incarceration take place in a mere one or two sealed rooms in a largely unseen, labyrinthine prison complex. Yet the script (written by Stewart himself adapted from the the real life Bahari's book Then They Came for Me: A family's story of love, captivity, and survival) constantly holds the attention, presenting both captive and captor as complex human beings under pressure - albeit two very different pressures - and giving its two leads some really strong material to work on as actors. It's a rare film that deals with such politically complex material so well. If he never makes another movie, Stewart has achieved something both remarkable and worthwhile with this one. Go and see it.