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Film Review: "Rosewater" 

A docudrama for our time

A great many television viewers, especially young people, apparently learn about the news from Jon Stewart's long-running comedy program, "The Daily Show."

click to enlarge Gael García Bernal in "Rosewater." - PHOTO COURTESY OPEN ROAD FILMS
  • Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal in "Rosewater."

Stewart interviews prominent people, some hustling their latest book or movie. He shows clips of events that the mainstream media ignore or censor, and with the help of a series of comic "correspondents," both satirizes and reports on domestic and international affairs. Strangely, Stewart's television show led him to write and direct a feature film, the docudrama "Rosewater."

Based on a memoir by the Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, the movie shows Bahari's arrest, imprisonment, and torture in a Tehran prison in 2009.

Bahari had appeared on Stewart's show -- a scene in the movie recreates an actual interview -- which the Iranian authorities, like so many Americans, regard as real news, leading them to charge the reporter with espionage and treason.

Perhaps realizing that he is at least partially responsible for Bahari's plight inspired Stewart's decision to make a film so different from his usual work.

After a prologue that explains the odd title, the movie proper opens with Iranian security agents arresting Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) -- who is reporting for Newsweek -- in his mother's home in Tehran. It then shifts back to the days leading up to the arrest, showing Bahari leaving his pregnant wife in London to visit his mother and cover the presidential election.

The movie mixes archival footage, including an absurd television "debate" between incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his opponent, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, with its own recounting of events. It shows Bahari meeting and interviewing the young people who support Mousavi, work for democratic reform, and keep in touch with the rest of the world through a gaggle of illegal satellite dishes.

Most of the movie shows the many months of Bahari's imprisonment in solitary confinement, the brutal beatings he endures, and the incessant interrogations and accusations. His captors accuse him of working for the CIA, the FBI, MI6, Mossad, the American Zionists, and the notorious espionage organization, Newsweek magazine. They think his magazines, CD's, and DVD's are either pornographic or treasonous.

The pain, the solitude, the sense of his own separation from a world that may have forgotten him drive Bahari to hallucinatory visits from his dead father, a communist professor persecuted by the shah, and his dead sister -- also an activist, imprisoned when he was a child. In his imagination, they offer him advice about dealing with his terrible predicament.

Bahari learns from his visions some ways to cope with the relentless inanity of his interrogations by providing his tormenters with just the sort of lies they desperately want to hear.

Questioned constantly about visits to the exotic state of New Jersey, of all places, he concocts a lascivious fiction about the wonderful town of Fort Lee, an erotic paradise, where one can enjoy remarkable massages, some so passionate and intense that a client can actually die of pleasure -- a prospect that apparently enchants his interrogator.

Because of its subject, "Rosewater" too often settles into a repetitive series of scenes, with Gael Garcia Bernal forced to perform in the blank white box of his cell with not much else to do beyond suffer, grieve, and yearn for freedom.

Its mixture of archival footage, including coverage of the fixed election and subsequent protests, international newscasts reporting on the journalist's arrest, protests from around the world, and the clincher, televised statements by Hillary Clinton, breaks up the occasionally crushing monotony of the narrative.

In addition to its function as a relevant document of a recent and probably forgotten historical event, "Rosewater" provides some compelling visual and thematic content. Its sequences showing a blindfolded, manacled man escorted by soldiers and policemen evoke memories not only of the Iranian hostage crisis, but also of the notorious photographs from Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad -- two enduring images of our time.

For those enthusiastic supporters of "enhanced interrogation" (curiously, the torture in the movie doesn't include that current American favorite, waterboarding), it also shows that torture generally is a device employed by weak, stupid, and frightened men.

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