Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Language including some Crude References, and Violent Content
Directed by: Jon Stewart
Written by: Jon Stewart
(based on the book THEN THEY CAME FOR ME by Maziar Bahari)
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Kim Bodnia, Dimitri Leonidas & Haluk Bilginer
ROSEWATER is among a handful of films that I wanted to see in theaters last year and wasn’t able to catch (the limited release lasted one week here). The trailer intrigued me and the subject matter seemed more than ripe for an intense, heartbreaking, important and inspiring true story about keeping your head high in the face of impossible adversity. Having finally caught up with it on DVD, I found that ROSEWATER is a so-so directorial debut from Jon Stewart (who also penned the script) that doesn’t do justice to a compelling true story.
Maziar Bahari is an Iranian-born journalist for Newsweek. In June 2009, he was sent to report on the rigged Iran elections that caused many well-deserved outbursts in the streets and a heavy government crack down. Maziar was one of the innocent bystanders caught in the backlash and was falsely accused of being a spy. He wound up imprisoned for 118 days, while being subjected to regular physical and psychological torture in an effort to gain a televised confession out of him. This film follows his remarkable true story, but first-time director/screenwriter Jon Stewart somehow botches the delivery. This inspiring story of hope and courage in the face of overwhelming odds becomes a melodramatic slog that feels like a big missed opportunity.
ROSEWATER starts off strong by showing Maziar’s arrest. The film then flashes back 11 days to show how he wound up in this predicament. This beginning is well executed and interesting. The performances from Gael Garcia Bernal as Maziar and Kim Bodnia as his brutal interrogator are both solid. Most scenes between the two are good with a backwards sort of relationship being formed as the nameless interrogator (who always smelled of Rosewater, hence the title of the film) shows that the system at work is broken, but the people in it remain human and not one-dimensional emotionless caricatures. An attempt to paint Maziar’s experience as a story filled with universal themes and not one driven by a specific agenda is admirable. Not everything works out as intended. The film is split down the middle 50-50 with good and bad qualities.
Other performances range from mediocre to downright forced. There are scenes that try to throw a certain amount of humor into the mix, Maziar dances to music inside of his head or initiates a conversation about New Jersey massages with his interrogator, and these feel drastically out-of-place. What should have been the most suspenseful and emotionally draining portion of the film becomes somewhat boring to sit through. Maziar’s stay in the prison isn’t shown to be as harrowing as it probably was. To make matters even worse, there are clichéd conversations between Maziar and his deceased father within a solitary confinement cell. The intentions behind these were good, but the execution feels like a lesser version of a thousand other similar scenes that have been pulled off in far better fashion.
The biggest problem with ROSEWATER is showcased in a pointless moment between mother and child being reunited in a prison field. There was no build up to this scene or anything showcasing an aftermath. It happens purely because it happens. I couldn’t help but feel that too little focus was thrown onto Maziar receiving despicable treatment as a consequence for simply doing his job as a journalist. Too much of ROSEWATER is dedicated to a tonally disjointed by-the-numbers formula that could have been a much more emotionally resonant movie. There are things to like in ROSEWATER (two solid performances, an interesting opening, and good scenes), but there are just as many things that don’t work (severe pacing issues, out-of-place humor, and mediocre performances from everyone else). ROSEWATER winds up as a middle-of-the-road flick that I really can’t recommend.