Torture by any other name

Jon Stewart’s directorial debut a powerful recounting of journalist’s captivity in Iran


Starring Gael Garc&#acute;a Bernal, Kim Bodnia and Shohreh Aghdashloo. Directed by Jon Stewart. Pageant Theatre. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

Rosewater is a rewarding experience in a surprising number of ways.

Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-born journalist working for Newsweek, endured 118 torturous days of captivity and interrogation by Iranian officials during the turmoil of that country’s elections in 2009. Rosewater, based on Bahari’s book about the ordeal, is a multifaceted dramatization of his captivity and the events surrounding it.

Jon Stewart, of The Daily Show fame, excels here in his filmmaking debut. His screenplay adaptation of Bahari’s book has a lively complexity to it, and his direction of the actors and the action itself is a mostly seamless combination of dramatic gravity and entertainment brio.

There’s a Daily Show connection in Bahari’s story—his captors deem his appearance in a skit on the show as evidence of Bahari’s connection to American spies. And Stewart’s movie can be seen, at least in part, as a gesture of solidarity with Bahari (played here by Gael García Bernal), and as a tenfold making of brave amends for the show’s unwitting involvement in the brutal, real-life farce of the journalist’s arrest.

Dark comedy and wry humor play small but important roles in the film, both in the bizarre East-West culture clashes and in Bahari’s emotional and spiritual survival. And the film is particularly sharp in portraying the dynamics of that survival, which is rooted in memories of family members, living and dead, and in the saving graces of imagination and wit.

The film’s title refers to the perfume favored by “true believers” among Iranian males, and also to Bahari’s most persistent and menacing captor/tormentor (Kim Bodnia) who regularly sprays a little of the stuff on himself before going to work. As such, the title also signals the film’s most intriguing complications—Bahari’s travails are central, of course, but this is a movie that also gives some close attention to the puzzling character and psychology of the captors, with the fellow referred to as “Rosewater” foremost among them.

In the Daily Show episode, one of the things Bahari says is that Americans and Iranians have a great many things in common. This comes across as a broad, humanitarian gesture, and it proves particularly galling to the zealots who do the interrogations. In the film, Bahari himself seems proof of those commonalities. But another sign of Rosewater’s sidelong brilliance is that it is able to embrace that grand remark while also leaving us room to remember that Americans have zealots of their own.