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By Daniel Lammin
21st June 2015

Politics in the Middle East are amongst the most volatile and sensitive subjects a filmmaker can explore, so it could either have been folly or bravery (or both) for comedian Jon Stewart to choose for his debut film as writer and director. He might have had his finger on the pulse of international politics with his acclaimed political news program ‘The Daily Show’, but does he have the chops to handle difficult and delicate material in a dramatic manner? His film ‘Rosewater’ would be of great interest based on its subject alone, but with untested Stewart as its driving creative force, the film becomes an even more intriguing prospect.

‘Rosewater’ looks at the story of Newsweek journalist Mazair Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal), who was arrested by Iranian officials in 2009 while covering the election in Iran and its aftermath. Accused of being an American spy, Bahari was held for 118 days and interrogated relentlessly by a "specialist" known only as Rosewater (Kim Bodina) because of the cologne he wears. Emotionally and physically attacked from every direction, Bahari is forced to use all his will to survive the ordeal and return to his family.


Bahari’s story holds a personal significance to Stewart, as a comedy segment recorded for his show featuring Bahari was used as evidence against him while in prison, which explains why Stewart chose to not only direct but also write the film. Any question of his competence at either task is quickly brushed aside though, as ‘Rosewater’ turns out to be a surprisingly accomplished film. Shot in an almost guerrilla style (reflecting the hand-held footage Bahari himself shot while in Iran), the film has a vitality and imagination you don’t see coming, moving with confidence and pace. Not only is Stewart’s screenplay extremely well-written, it’s also beautifully constructed, playing with time as well as flashes of magic realism. He hasn’t taken the safe option for his debut, either in subject matter or in its execution, but he has the lightness of touch and attention to detail to pull it off. Though it begins to unravel a bit towards the end, ‘Rosewater’ is endlessly captivating, the cinéma vérité style throwing you right into the action, and the clarity of the storytelling makes it both emotionally and intellectually satisfying. This is an extremely strong debut for Stewart, and hopefully he’ll develop his skills as a filmmaker further.

He also elicits a wonderful performance out of Gael Garcia Bernal, who skirts around the cliché of the tragic, mistreated hero to make Bahari an endearing and deeply human figure. There are no moments of breakdown or showy emotion. Instead, Bernal keeps alive a lightness and a humour in him, totally overwhelmed by his situation but prepared to do what is necessary to stay alive. He’s charming, polite and good-humoured, even at the worst of times, and this just makes us care about him even more. Bodina is frighteningly volatile as Rosewater, a vicious dog in a muzzle desperately wanting to lash out. He’s a frightening counterpoint to Bahari, all the more so for being unexpectedly human. There’s also terrific performances from Dimitri Leonidas, Shohreh Aghdashloo and Claire Foy, and it’s a credit to Stewart that the work of this ensemble is so strong.

Stewart elicits a wonderful performance out of Gael Garcia Bernal.

Though it might lay its intentions and politics on a little too thick towards the end and not quite come to the rousing finale it promises, there’s a lot of recommend with ‘Rosewater’. It somehow steers clear of most of the clichés that cripple other films like it, and thanks for confident writing and direction from Jon Stewart and a great performance from Gael Garcia Bernal, ends up being a genuinely accomplished and satisfying film.

Transmission have only released ‘Rosewater’ on DVD, but the standard definition 1.85:1 transfer still works in the film’s favour. The film itself changes in video quality depending on the situation or source, so there’s a certain consistency in the kind of detail and clarity DVD offers. Colours are still rich and detail is still sharp throughout, with very little information lost. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track works similarly, a surprisingly vibrant and active track that brings the aural detail of the film to life.

There are no features included in this release.

RELEASE DATE: 24/06/2015
RUN TIME: 1h 43m
CAST: Gael García Bernal
Kim Bodnia
Jon Stewart
Scott Rudin
SCORE: Howard Shore
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