Sunday, June 21, 2015

Stopping to Enjoy the Roses

Jon Stewart may have a lot of fans (who have been lamenting his decision to leave The Daily Show later this year). But those fans didn't turn out last year for his directorial debut, judging by the paltry box office take of his film Rosewater.

To be fair, Rosewater was hardly a film with mass commercial appeal. It tells the story of Maziar Bahari, a journalist imprisoned by the Iranian government under the ludicrous and false pretense of him being a foreign spy. Determined to tell the story, and struggling to get Hollywood filmmakers on the project, Jon Stewart ultimately decided to write and direct the movie himself, taking a summer 2013 sabbatical from The Daily Show to make it all happen. It was a personal project for Stewart, in part because a Daily Show piece featuring Bahari was used in the "case" to arrest him.

A dramatic "passion project" from a known comedian with no directing experience -- not a likely recipe for a great film. But the key is that the film comes across not as Jon Stewart's bid to be taken seriously, but as his plea that this story be taken seriously. The result is something earnest and well-crafted. Stewart actually proves to be a very capable director who knows how to move the camera and how to frame a shot for emotional impact. He also shows skill in working with actors -- though he himself would likely demure and say he was just getting out of their way.

Gael Garcia Bernal gives a wonderful performance as Bahari, showing increasingly raw truth as each layer is stripped away from him in his captivity. Kim Bodnia plays his torturer, known only as "Rosewater," whose powerful performance makes clear that torture need not be physical to still qualify as torture.

If there's a weak spot to the film, it's the script itself; Stewart is not as solid a screenwriter on his first time out as he is a director. Scenes rarely have a turn within them, and their sole tone too often serves a transparent and formulaic purpose within the larger narrative. There's a reliance on tricks worn out by other filmmakers, such as starting the narrative with a flash-forward, and having Bahari converse with his dead father in a series of now-you-see-him-now-you-don't camera cuts. It's not a bad script, though it feels like it surely must have lost a lot in the translation from Bahari's own book about his experience.

Still, the film deserved more attention than it got. It may have been unfairly dismissed (by people who were even aware of it at all) as a dark movie about torture. It's actually more uplifting than that. I give it a B-.

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