I won’t pretend that political drama films are an unexplored genre – as long as there has been politics, there have been representations of politics in entertainment and the media. That doesn’t mean that it is a trite, overwrought genre in any way – instead, political films can be thrilling, captivating and very well-made, depending on the effort made, and the story being told. Rosewater flew under the radar, which is unfortunate, as I do believe it to be one of the most inventive, wonderful political thrillers of recent years, and the fact that it wasn’t widely seen is an unfortunate occurrence because in a sea of mediocre thrillers, Rosewater is absolutely unique.
Part of the appeal of Rosewater, or the reason why it received the small amount of attention it did, was because of the director. Many know Jon Stewart as the satirical comedian that presided over The Daily Show for over a decade. It was not out of the realm of possibility that Stewart might attempt to direct at some point – many comedians do step behind the camera. However, I never thought Stewart would be the kind of man who wrote and directed an intense political thriller as his debut film. I knew Stewart had a mind for politics, but I wouldn’t have pegged him for the type that would make such a serious, intense film, which is further proof that sometimes the world of cinema can really throw a surprise into the mix. Stewart based this film on the life of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian journalist who somehow ended up being seen as a spy, and spent a third of a year in prison, undergoing brutal torture from the Iranian government that believed he was an American spy. Stewart was clearly passionate about this story – in fact, his own show played a part in the capture of Bahari (a fact that Stewart doesn’t shy away from admiting in this film), but more than that, Bahari was a brave, strong man that fought endlessly against the brutality of his captors, and his story is truly very inspiring and powerful, and if you are going to dive head-first into making a serious political thriller, then the story of Maziar Bahari is the way to go, especially when you have somewhat of a personal connection to him.
In the lead role of Maziar Bahari is an actor I find absolutely brilliant – Gael Garcia Bernal. I will not comment on the obvious fact that Garcia Bernal – a Mexican – is playing Bahari – an Iranian, which has caused some small rumblings of controversy. It is a slightly bizarre casting choice, but it is actually one that doesn’t seem as misguided as one would think – Rosewater speaks more towards the idea of portraying someone, rather than imitating them. Garcia Bernal simply just possessed the personality traits that Stewart felt were neccesary enough for him to play Bahari – and I would say that suspension of disbelief is another tool used here to accurately portray Bahari, because seeing Bahari in interviews and some appearances, it is clear that Garcia Bernal was more than adequate to play the man, because the nuances and cadences that he brings to the role supersedes the bizarre casting. In fact, Garcia Bernal gives one of the best performances of the year overall, and is just another great performance in his reportoire of brilliant performances – you can expect to see more and more reviews of Gael Garcia Bernal’s films, because I’ve started to explore his filmography more widely now.
Rosewater is a powerful story, but something quite fascinating happened in this film – Jon Stewart could not hide the fact that he is a comedic mind as much as he is a political mind, and Rosewater, and I say this with complete reluctance, is quite often a very funny film. Now don’t get me wrong – it is a very serious and intense film, and thinking of there being any humour in the film is quite frankly bizarre, but there are some wonderfully lighthearted moments, and some very darkly comical scenes that are truly out of place in a film like this. An example can be the strangely surreal moment where Bahari dances to Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love”, after finding out that his wife is about to give birth to a baby girl. It is a very sweet scene, but also a very funny one, as it doesn’t quite fit into this film, and when one considers that in the previous scene, he had just been brutally beaten up by the interrogator. Rosewater is as much a dark comedy as it is a tense political thriller, and while its comedy moves more along the lines of portraying the humor in difficult situations rather than being self-aware, it doesn’t mean that the comedic moments detract from the intense story at the core.
Other than Gael Garcia Bernal, there are many other great performances in this film. Shohreh Aghdashloo is one of the most underrated actresses working today, and she always brings a quiet humility to all of her roles. In Rosewater, she plays the loving and humble mother of Bahari who he visits when making a trip back to Iran. Honestly, I was expecting her to do slightly more than she did, because not only is she a talented Iranian actress, but also a relatively known actress, and in a role such as Bahari’s mother, there was room for much exploration of her character. However, her performance is good enough for this film, and she brings a wonderful level of sincerity to the film. Kim Bodnia has the biggest role in the film other than Garcia Bernal, playing the villainous interrogator that is nicknamed “Rosewater”, due to the cologne he sprays on himself. He is evil, malicious and absolutely hateful, and his performance is very compelling and he makes a great villain. Dimitri Leonidas is also fantastic as Bahari’s chaffeur who turns out to be one of the instigators of the rebellion. He is responsible for some of the funniest moments in the film, and I was hoping to see more of his character, but the little we saw was more than enough to convince me that Leonidas is a talented young actor.
Rosewater is a great film. It is tense and absolutely thrilling, and strangely comical. It is definitely a unique film, and one that sadly flew too far under the radar. Jon Stewart took a huge risk making his directorial debut with this film, but it paid off. Rosewater is such a great film, and one that has a lot of heart and soul, and tells a very compelling story. Gael Garcia Bernal is fantastic as always, and I look forward to seeing what Stewart is planning to do next.