London Film Festival Review: Rosewater

Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) was imprisoned for over 100 days.

Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) was imprisoned for over 100 days.


Title:                         Rosewater

Certificate:               tbc

Director:                   Jon Stewart

Major Players:         Gael Barcia Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Claire Foy

Out Of Five:             3


Jon Stewart? The Jon Stewart, from The Daily Show?  The very same!  The darling of American liberals has dipped his toe into movie directing – and actually not just directing, but screenwriting as well.

This is also something of a personal project, as it was a story that Stewart featured on his TV show. London-based journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) goes to Tehran to cover the presidential elections of 2009.  An Iranian by birth, he speaks the language and as well as interviewing the relevant officials, is taken by his local ‘driver’ to meet real people, supporting opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. When the result is declared in favour of the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – and appears to have been rigged – Bahari’s arrested as a spy and tortured. His detention lasts over 100 days and he’s only released when the campaign to release him mounted by his English wife in London reaches the ears – and considerable influence – of major politicians, including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Where does the title come from? There’s plenty of shots of roses at the start, showing how they’re grown to make rosewater.  And then we switch suddenly to the man who will be Bahari’s interrogator in a car, liberally spraying himself with the stuff.  During most of his interrogations and beatings, Bahari was blindfolded – so he could only identify the man by his personal smell.   And he nicknamed him Rosewater.

Essentially, this is a film made by a media personality and inevitably it takes a positive view of the media, especially the more recent developments, such as the ability to photograph and film at will and post it online quickly for all the world to see. One of the final shots of the film, that of a young Iranian using his mobile to snap some soldiers destroying satellite dishes, looks forward to the Arab Spring of 2011.  And it makes Rosewater a rather interesting companion piece for David Fincher’s Gone Girl a couple of weeks ago, which takes a very different view.  They’re the two sides of the same coin – and there’s another viewpoint to come in Michael Winterbottom’s The Face Of An Angel.

In all honesty, it’s a touch too rosy in its view of the media – or, at least, one-sided. As you would expect from a director and writer like Stewart, it wears its political heart its sleeve, which is most clearly demonstrated by the final caption about journalists and bloggers currently imprisoned for speaking out, and not just in Iran.  It could have done with a lighter touch.

Stewart has made his reputation in political satire so, unsurprisingly, it creeps into the film. It’s even in one of the interrogation sessions, where Bahari winds up Rosewater with stories of erotic massage – apparently the reason for all his travelling.  The interrogator seems to swallow it wholesale, which is more than a little surprising.  But by this stage Bahari has the upper hand on his tormenter.

As first films go – and it should be said that Stewart has been the producer on around 40 movies already – Rosewater isn’t at all bad. He makes good use of contemporary news footage from all around the world, including the BBC’s own John Simpson, and at least one of those journalists has a small role in the story.  And there’s some imaginative camerawork as Bahari walks down some recognisable streets in London, with his thoughts projected onto the buildings behind him – his sister’s face appears on the window of Starbucks – making them more tangible and vivid.

Rosewater doesn’t have a release date yet for the UK but its opening in the States next month should mean that it’s not far off. Despite some heavy handedness and the sense that Stewart can’t resist playing to the gallery, it’s still a moving story about courage and the human spirit – and, as such, it deserves to be told.


Rosewater was screened at the London Film Festival on 12, 14 and 16 October. Its UK release date has yet to be confirmed.


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