It’s not Rosebud, it’s Rosewater, but Jon Stewart’s Iran film still has its moments

Jon Stewart’s recently-released film Rosewater isn’t Citizen Kane and its central character doesn’t utter any famously enigmatic dying words. In my view the film’s no masterpiece (not that I think Citizen Kane is either) and Stewart’s directorial debut just … didn’t do it for me. There! Some in-depth criticism for you. I’m sure you’ll agree, it could have come straight from the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma or Pauline Kael. Or at least Mark Kermode!

Alright, CUT! And take two …

While some critics have seen Rosewater’s account of the 2009 arrest of the Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari (accused of being an American “spy”) as a winning demonstration of Stewart’s “considerable and subtle” writing and directing skills, I was, I’m afraid, less convinced. For sure, Gael García Berna is perfectly watchable as the initially bewildered and gradually more confident Bahari. And, as several critics have noted, the Danish actor Kim Bodnia is pretty good as the chief interrogator “Rosewater” - a mix of malevolence and wounded insecurity.

But still, for a film about sudden arbitrary detention, mounting fear and repeated torture, it’s all a little pedestrian, skimming the surface rather than plumbing the depths. I certainly don’t think it gets close to the true horror of being taken to Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, probably something a commercially-minded film by a bankable big-name director could never really afford to do.

For me the film’s single best moment comes right at the start: a scene where the security forces come to Bahari’s mother’s house early one morning when Bahari is still in bed. They force their way into his bedroom declaring “We are here now”, a creepily familiar announcement that echoes the tormentor-as-father-substitute of George Orwell’s infamous interrogator O’Brien. Similarly, the film works best when Rosewater is doing things like putting his hands on the hooded Bahari’s neck, massaging it and whispering in his ear. It’s a sinisterly homoerotic good-cop routine from a brooding interrogator who can quite suddenly switch to macho outbursts of violence. And all this while the ghost of Bahari’s father stalks the cells and corridors of Evin, essentially telling him to “man up” and resist the torture. Freud would have loved it …

A few critics have been quite taken by Rosewater’s attempts at humour (especially some stuff about the repressed interrogator’s obsession with whether things like The Sopranos are “porno”) but I found these rather lame. Hardly “satire” anyway. In the end the Iranian authorities themselves are pretty hard to beat when it comes to satire. Most well-intentioned liberal films would struggle to compete with Iran’s lawmakers, police officials and judges. Who else would think it reasonable to charge a peaceful pro-women’s rights volley-ball protester with “propaganda against the state”, an offence carrying a possible six-year sentence? Or think it legitimate to arrest and give out (suspended) flogging and jail sentences to a bunch of young people who did a (gulp) Pharrell Williams Happy video?  

No, the Iranian authorities are clearly master-satirists. How else could they seek the arrest and intensive interrogation (nine hours a day for a month and a half at Evin Prison) of the 28-year-old artist Atena Farghadani? Her dastardly crime, besides criticising Iran’s increasingly repressive attitude to family planning, had been to meet families of some of the people who were killed in the violence after Iran’s 2009 presidential election (the election that Bahari had been trying to cover for Newsweek before his arrest). (Go here for info on a London solidarity demo for Farghadani next week).

Final thought: I think it’s a bit of a shame that Rosewater cast non-Iranians in the film’s two main parts, not least given the amazing quality of Iranian cinema and its leading actors. That said, after the Leila Katami kiss affair I suppose it’s reasonable to assume that Iranians (other than long-term exiles) just couldn’t risk involvement in a film like this. Rosewater might be a rather “nuts and bolt affair” (to quote Mark Kermode) but it’s still dangerously powerful stuff by the control-freak authoritarian standards of the Iranian authorities.

Whatever else happens, I don’t think Iranian state television will be offering Jon Stewart a new job when he leaves The Daily Show later this year.

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