Saturday 7 March 2015

Rosewater (2015) - Movie Review

As Australia’s Oscar season inches closer to its end, I find myself a lot more pleased at the prospect than I should be. While the offerings over the past two months have been of relatively consistent quality, I am getting a mild case of burnout from seeing so many overly serious dramatic works in such a short time span; even if all of these films haven’t been nominated for awards, they are starting to run together regardless. Because of this, I get the feeling that the main reason why I have been so favourable to films like Kingsman: The Secret Service and Wyrmwood: Road Of The Dead is because they stand out so much against everything else on offer. However, something tells me that I should be a lot more grateful for the higher quality that’s out right now, especially considering how many films are coming up this year that I am seriously dreading going out to see like Get Hard, The Longest Ride and Insurgent. Nevertheless, here I am with yet another drama to look at.

The plot: Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) is a journalist covering the 2009 Iranian presidential election. After his reportings run afoul of the Iranian government, he is sentenced to solitary confinement under the brutal eye of Javadi (Kim Bodnia). As Maziar is tortured and forced to confess to erroneous claims of being a spy for Western forces, his will and sanity are repeatedly tested, all the while he clings to hope that he will be able to get out and see his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and pregnant wife (Claire Foy) again.

Given the media furore surrounding The Interview, I was convinced that I wouldn’t find another movie with as much background history (or at least as much interesting background). Then in comes this movie, which almost feels like the other side of The Interview’s coin in a strange way. Now, as part of my research for my review on that film, I found out about a fake North Korean propaganda film (which you can find here) that apparently had a lot of Westerners fooled.  Things like that added to the frankly malformed attempt at commentary with that film about the West’s perception of the country along with the bias in its media portrayal of it.

Here, on the flip-side of that, the genesis for the film came out of a situation where the East, in this case Iran, took a piece of Western news parody seriously. Except whereas the former lead to a few yuks online, the latter lead to the aforementioned imprisonment. Maziar Bahari did a fairly tongue-in-cheek interview with The Daily Show, which the Iranian government took as a sign that Maziar was working for the U.S. and committing acts of real espionage. Now, this in and of itself is already a rather bizarre and kind of scary beginning for a dramatic work, but then there’s the matter of the writer/director of this film: Jon Stewart, the host of The Daily Show. Given that bit of background info, this film has an air of redemption around it; like this is a film Stewart felt he had to make out of respect for Maziar. You’d be hard-pressed to find better justification for creating a film.

So, how does Stewart actually handle the direction here, considering this is his first time in the chair? Well, for a start, there’s a certain undercurrent to the film that throws the real-life events into question; it’s heavily insinuated that The Daily Show interview was only a cover for arresting Maziar for his reporting that questioned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory and its legitimacy. Now, while I could take the unhealthily cynical route and chalk this up to Stewart covering his arse when it comes to his show’s involvement with the arrest (which, no doubt, people have done already), instead this comes across as a more realistic angle on events; I’d rather live in a world where people aren’t locked up just for making jokes, regardless of where they happen. Proximity, especially in a project like this, could have resulted in something rather disastrous but Stewart takes the humble approach and the film is all the better for it.

There’s also a very 'news-feed' feel to some scenes here, like having Maziar’s memories of his father and sister projected onto the walls of buildings as he walks past or the brief cutaways at Dish University or even the image of Iran covered in hashtags… okay, that last one sounds (and actually looks) a bit trite but the visual aesthetic is well-handled at the very least. However, in terms of Stewart’s involvement, there is one glaring problem that kept distracting me throughout: The majority of the dialogue is in English with a few scattered bits of Persian throughout. Considering the consistent theme of Iran’s government lacking knowledge and being paranoid about the West, it’s more than a little distracting to be hearing everyone in this movie speaking English.

Not to say that the actors saying said dialogue are bad by any stretch, mind you. The cast here are all very adept with the material they’re given but special commendations need to go to Bernal and Bodnia for their performances here. Bernal brings a lot of heart and even a few chuckles with his performance, and when experienced in tandem with the claustrophobic cinematography, it conveys Maziar’s isolation with gut-punching efficacy. His highlight, and by extension the film’s highlight, is when he finally gets to talk to someone on the outside; Bernal performs this scene, quite frankly, perfectly as far as I’m concerned.

Credit also goes to Haluk Bilginer and Golshifteh Farahani, who play Maziar’s father and sister respectively, who add greatly to showing how much the imprisonment is affecting Maziar. Bodnia, while being a bit screwed when it came to adapting his nickname from the original text (making the title of the movie kind of lost in translation as a result), is really good as the interrogator Javadi. Actually, he might be a little too good at portraying this kind of hateful and twisted sadism, while keeping it in the realms of reality and making it feel even worse. The dynamic between these two is almost 1984-esque in the way it shows Javadi figuratively drill into Maziar’s head to get him to confess to crimes he hasn’t committed, doing everything he can to break his will. It’s this dynamic that ends up making the massage scene as jarringly hilarious as it is. No spoilers here, but it’s a genuinely great thing to witness. The only thing that can really detract from their scenes together is the editing, which features quite a few awkward cuts to the same camera shot, giving the film a few moments of unfortunate cheapness.

All in all, it’d take a serious contender to stand out against the myriad of prisoner dramas we’ve been getting recently, but this film does well at standing out against the crowd. The acting is on point, the writing is fine-tuned to get the most out of every performance and actually makes some decent commentary on the real-life events and, considering that this is Stewart’s debut, the overall direction is very effective. The man got accused of making Zionist propaganda with this film just before it came out, so he must have done something right.

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