Sunday, 3 May 2015

Civilisation: "Rosewater"

Jon Stewart's directorial debut Rosewater is, as one might expect, both politically engaged and culturally sensitive. As it details the 188-day imprisonment of Iran-born, London-based journalist Maziar Behari upon his return to Tehran to cover the 2009 election, Farsi takes priority over English, and prayers to Mecca are observed on a regular basis. Stewart's trademark pop-cultural asides remain very much in place. When the police first raid the apartment Behari shares with his mother, DVDs of The Sopranos and Theorem ("porno?") are seized upon as evidence of sedition; and, in a fleet personal touch, Stewart reteams with Jason Jones to recreate the Daily Show segment that brought Behari to the attention of this director and the authorities, who came to regard the journalist as a spy working under cover of the American news media - the kind of comical misunderstanding only a truly humourless state might arrive at. All in all, Rosewater offers a far more fair and balanced depiction of life in an Islamic nation than the cable networks Stewart has often had cause to rail against in his day job: in place of bearded zealots, he shows us flawed but human functionaries. 

Other elements here prove less culturally specific. It's initially jolting to learn that the role of Behari is going to be played by the Mexican Gael Garcia Bernal, no matter that - after NO and Who is Dayani Cristal? - the actor has become something of a multipurpose liberal figurehead. It's even more jolting when his Iranian interrogator turns up, in the form of Great Dane Kim Bodnia, from The Bridge. (With the exception of Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings, no 2014 film employed more brown slap.) Stewart has evidently seen enough movies and TV shows to have gathered that these are very watchable performers - watchable enough, at least, to make involving the rather sedentary business of detention and sustained cross-examination; the actors' contrasting physical appearance also adds a visual dynamism to the depiction of ideological difference. Bodnia looms, growls and cajoles, like the State itself; Bernal is lithe but vulnerable, the image of the little man. 

Though these scenes serve as a badge for Stewart's faith in civilised, intelligent dialogue, somehow they're still a little too polite-seeming, certainly in comparison with, to take a recent example, the prison scenes in Steve McQueen's Hunger: Behari rarely seems to be facing any immediate threat, despite Bodnia's considerable bulk. Increasingly, one catches Stewart falling back on stock movie tricks to keep the drama alive: flashbacks to Behari's days outside the prison with a free-spirited sister (Golshifteh Farahani), the journalist's conversations with the ghost of his late father (Haluk Bilginer, from Winter Sleep). Rosewater begins to stutter whenever it lapses into this "based-on-true-events" backstory: it's having to make good on exactly that backstory the Daily Show's editors would pare down to a snappy seven-minute segment with the right cutaways.

Even here, though, there remain traces of something more personal, and winning: when Behari leads his slack-jawed interrogator down a blind alley with an account of a voluptuous (and, presumably, patriotic) hand-relief technique known as "Persian Massage", it looks very much like an attempt to rewrite Iranian history according to a stand-up's perpetual need for masturbation gags. (The topper involves Stewart's native New Jersey: it comes close to home.) The result, a genuine middleweight, makes for an easy watch, if not the powerful statement of liberal values it might have been. If Stewart felt any guilt about getting Behari into this mess in the first place, the debt has now been repaid in bringing this story to wider international prominence, and there's obviously something encouraging and positive in seeing an American feature taking the internalities of another nation - especially an Islamic nation - this seriously. 

Rosewater opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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