Jon Stewart’s directorial debut is heavy, fortified, and triumphant.
Movie Review #962
Political comedy isn’t a sport fit for the village idiot. One must first of all know what one is talking about in order to make us laugh. One must also be able to take any political topic seriously, and to understand it inside-out and backwards, from the view of any political comedy, any faction.
Thus, Jon Stewart’s 16 years of success as the host of The Daily Show wouldn’t have been if he didn’t understand that that key to his brand of humor. Politics itself is not a joking matter; rather, what one can make of it is.
This time, though, it’s not a joking matter Stewart makes of politics, and wherever he does utilize comedy, it’s for effect. It shouldn’t take us aback that Jon Stewart chose to adapt a prison memoir, or that he chose to adapt it into a most serious political drama. He knows the ins and outs of politics. He has to.
“Rosewater”, Stewart’s directorial debut, isn’t an account of Iran’s poor treatment of its citizens. It’s a wakeup call to what could be a red scare in Iran. Not unlike Americans’ widespread fear of communists in the post-World War I era and in the 1950’s, Iran is shown as both fearful of and angry at the western world. How accurate the film is at depicting this, I cannot quite say, but “Rosewater” brings the issue to our attention. What’s most interesting here is that Maziar Bahari is portrayed by Mexican actor Gael García Bernal. Given his history in Spanish-language comedies (“Y Tu Mamá También” and various Almodóvar films), it’s difficult to fathom just how Bernal turned in such a good performance as an Iranian-Canadian in such a heavy drama. Bahari was born and raised in Iran, but his family brought him up in a westernized household. One of his fondest memories happens to be of a certain Leonard Cohen LP, for example. Bahari has lived in Britain during his time as a writer for Newsweek. He has a wife in Britain, who is expecting their first child. But when Bahari travels to Iran on a business trip, he is accused of spying on the Iranian government.
I have to question the storytelling at this point. Especially considering that “Rosewater” pivots around Bahari’s arrest and interrogation, it doesn’t seem quite logical that Bahari is accused of spying because he starred in a British comedy video. The film’s assertion that this was the reason for the accusation leveled at Bahari only makes us wonder what the real reason was.
The film depicts a level of paranoia that a viewer from this section of civilization might not be able to fathom. We watch, in the opening scene, police investigators for the Iranian government invading the protagonist’s home and confiscating every bit of property–from Empire magazine to an Italian art film–on the grounds that they’re “porno.” As noted, Jon Stewart delivers the terrible situation as caricatured comedy, and it’s all for effect.
But the scene doesn’t just appeal to our laughter. It also appeals to our emotions. This more serious appeal grows stronger as the film progresses. For the entire second half of the movie, officials arrest and torture our protagonist to try and gain information from him that he simply does not have. The account is an extremely subjective but nevertheless incredibly sympathetic account of this sort of oppression. I would generally complain films with such an adamant political stance–one that wants to change a bipartisan audience into a strictly left-wing audience over the course of an hour and a half–but the left-wing morals in “Rosewater” are immensely genuine. This is the sort of call to action that Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” aimed to be, and achieved, albeit to a lesser extent–a film that takes on a harrowing topic, but focuses on the power of resistance. It’s for Jon Stewart’s powerful vision in this area that “Rosewater” stays with us as triumphant and uplifting.