For his maiden directorial voyage, Stewart has forgone star power, though his leading man Gael García Bernal has plenty of international acclaim (perhaps most notably for Babel ). Bernal plays Bahari as an inquisitive, sensitive journalist who strives to highlight the similarities between Iranians and those living in Western countries, including the U.S. When The Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones (playing himself) visits Tehran on assignment to interview Bahari, events are put into motion that lead to Bahari’s detainment. Jones’ interview questions are satirical in nature, but Iranian authorities fail to see the humor in any of it. Upon confiscating Bahari’s personal belongings, they find only more “evidence” to support their belief that Bahari is, in fact, a “spy” helping the “Zionists” disgrace Iran.
It’s a neat meeting of reality and cinematic interpretation for Stewart to bring Bahari’s ordeal to life, considering his own show’s direct involvement. There’s very little conventional “action” in Rosewater, in fact the sight of a man being shuffled back and forth between solitary confinement and an interrogation room is pretty much the opposite of action. To his credit, Stewart’s style is generally spartan, assuming a docu-drama approach much of the time. The simplicity only enforces the impact of occasional flourishes like newsreel footage and other imagery, surrealistically projected on building walls.
The most powerful scenes are the interrogations, occurring in a shabby, gray room. Bahari is usually blindfolded, with a man he nicknames “Rosewater” (Kim Bodnia) towering over him. What makes these scenes so gripping is their unpredictability. This is not another depiction of the typical enhanced interrogation techniques that we’ve seen so many times in both film and TV. This often feels like a case of the inmates running the asylum. “Rosewater” is reassuring at time, offering Bahari small treats like fresh apricots as he attempts to extract a “confession.” Bahari, he charges, is guilty of collaborating with intelligence agencies including the CIA, MI6, and “Newsweek.” Bahari’s rational explanations that Newsweek is a privately-owned publication fall on deaf ears. At times, “Rosewater” seems merely curious to know more about the “evil” Western culture (he deems a home video of The Sopranos “porno”). But Bahari never knows when “Rosewater” will lash out violently.
Rosewater is gripping and well-acted. Stewart avoids bogging the film down with the sort of “history lesson” elements that might compromise its entertainment value. The end result winds up being highly watchable, laced with surprising flashes of dark humor, as well as socially and politically relevant. It’s an auspicious debut and, with his recent announcement of his departure from The Daily Show, it will be interesting to see if Stewart builds on this with additional films.
Universal’s Blu-ray offers solid technical specs, with a problem-free audio/visual presentation. Bobby Bukowski’s digital cinematography is sharp. Newsreel footage is occasionally included, along with various interview footage designed to look like it was caught “on the fly” by Bahari and others. Naturally this material doesn’t have the same level of quality, but it’s all a natural part of this type of documentary-esque style of filmmaking. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix is pretty sedate but also presents no concerns. Howard Shore’s effectively subdued score sounds terrific.
The only area in which the ball was dropped is the special features department. At a glance, the five featurettes listed on the “extras” menu look promising, especially with titles like “Iran’s Controversial Election,” “The Story of Maziar Bahari,” and “A Director’s Perspective.” But each of the five clips runs less than one minute. They’re nothing more than mini-trailers with a shot or two of Stewart talking about the film. No Stewart commentary, no interviews with the real Maziar Bahari, no deleted scenes. Rosewater is the kind of film that seems tailor-made for probing, informative supplemental material so it’s really puzzling to find basically nothing. The Blu-ray Combo Pack includes a standard DVD and a Digital Copy.
Follow Rosewater on Twitter and Facebook. For entry in the Rosewater Release Sweepstakes, which offers the chance to win a trip to a Daily Show taping, visit here.