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Review: Jon Stewart's 'Rosewater' is serious but funny when it needs to be

The comic makes a sometimes awkward but ultimately solid segue into filmmaking, thanks in large part to an underplaying Gael Garcia Bernal.
Rosewater

Kim Bodnia tortures Gael Garcia Bernal in the Maziar Bahari docudrama "Rosewater,"Laith Al-Majali, Open Road Films

‘Rosewater’
Director:
Jon Stewart
Stars: Gael Garcia Bernal, Kim Bodnia
Rating: PG-13
3 (out of 5) Globes

It’s genuinely shocking when the funny, satirical film you’d expect from a film by Jon Stewart emerges late in the first film by Jon Stewart. That’s not a knock: A film about a journalist detained for 118 days — based on Maziar Bahari’s real-life stint in an Iranian prison — shouldn’t be a comedy. And "Roswater" isn't, even though parts of the story would be hard not to play for laughs. In fact, one of the reasons Bahari, a London-based Iranian journalist, played here by Gael Garcia Bernal, was jailed was because he participated in a joke interview on “The Daily Show,” which made him look to his accusers’ eyes like he was a spy for America. Bernal’s Bahari laughs at this obvious, inane mistake, until he’s sitting in an isolated cell and it’s no longer funny.

These may be too many moving parts for a first-time filmmaker to handle, much less someone making a film as nakedly, honorably but never quite egregiously earnest as “Rosewater.” A sharper filmmaker would have found a way to weave all of them together: the meta element, the stark drama, the Kafkaesque comedy that periodically crops up, the humanizing look at Iran (or, by necessity, Jordan posing for Iran).

Stewart can’t, but after a stumbling first act, held together only by Bernal’s reliable confidence, he starts keeping things simple. He winds up putting most of his weight behind the two-person drama between Bahari and his torturer, an imposing brute he dubs “Rosewater” (Kim Bodnia). The bulk of the film toggles between interrogations — sometimes rough, but decidedly dialed down from the brutality that actually occurred — and Bahari in his cell, either flashing back to memories or pretending to chat with his father, who himself was a jailed political dissident.

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The dad scenes can seem lazy, a cliched way of keep an isolated protagonist talking, as well as a cheap way to raise issues. They are tough ones: Bahari feuds with his ghost dad about whether it’s right to stick by one’s beliefs even if that means abandoning loved ones, as his father (and sister, played by Golfishteh Farahani) indeed did. It doesn’t have any easy answers to that, nor should it. But even as he’s having imaginary conversations, we’re still effectively stuck in Bahari’s head. With a few exceptions towards the end, there are no cutaways outside the jail; we’re trapped with someone who’s being made to feel alone and forgotten.

This is a rigorous idea not always rigorously implemented. The interrogation scenes can be visually repetitive, although they’re more than saved by the two actors. Bodnia, a Danish actor best known for Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Pusher,” walks a fine line between being a buffoon and being a buffoon with enough power to destroy one’s life. Bernal meanwhile almost singlehandedly assures this is not a mere earnest political tract. He’s not only very human; he has an underrated gift for comic timing. (He’s a full-on comedic genius in Michel Gondry’s “The Science of Sleep.”) Bahari’s mental journey, from thinking this is absurd to tumbling into disillusionment back then back again, is admirably underplayed. His reactions to patently silly accusations can be funny, but it’s important that the laughs arise organically from the material. “Rosewater” eventually turns into a darkly comic film, and the moment the tone shifts — and you can actually spot it — is thrilling. An act that initially seemed frightening suddenly reveals itself to be silly and almost touchingly pathetic.

There are scores of rookie mistakes in “Rosewater,” most of them in the stuttering first act, which struggles with set-up and tone. (This is definitely not the type of film that needs whooshing sound effects during flashbacks, as though this was a very special episode of “Family Guy.”) But by the end “Rosewater” is considerably more than a pile of good intentions.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
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