‘Rosewater’ Review: Jon Stewart’s Directorial Debut Bobbles the Storytelling and the Casting

This tale of an imprisoned journalist suffers from a muddled narrative, though Gael García Bernal is a fine actor

We all know about the Uncanny Valley: it’s that place where a simulation of human features gets so close to the real thing, while still looking artificial, that it puts off audiences. (Think of the glassy-eyed children of the damned in “The Polar Express.”)

It’s time to add a new geographical term to filmmaking: the Gulf of Historic Inevitability. That’s the gap a filmmaker traverses by making you forget that you already know how a true story is going to end. It’s not impossible to create suspense out of a foregone conclusion: “Lincoln,” “Argo,” “Apollo 13,” “Titanic” and countless other beloved movies keep us tense even though the third act is such common knowledge it’s unspoilable.

In “Rosewater,” first-time writer-director Jon Stewart (“The Daily Show”) adapts a memoir by BBC journalist Maziar Bahari, and that fact looms heavily over the proceedings. While there are plenty of suggestions that Stewart has it in him to become a filmmaker to watch, he never breaches that Gulf of Historic Inevitability, and I, at least, never forgot that I was looking at a story about a man who would eventually live to write a book about these very experiences.

Bahari, a Tehran-born journalist with Canadian citizenship, returned in 2009 to cover Iran’s controversial elections. As the BBC began airing his footage of riots in the streets (following Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection under questionable circumstances), Bahari was apprehended by the Revolutionary Guard and tortured and interrogated over the course of 118 days.

rosewater-RW_00316_rgbGael García Bernal stars as Bahari, and while he’s a talented performer, I found myself unable to stop noticing the fact that he isn’t Iranian. Had Stewart decided to surround García Bernal with an entirely Mexican ensemble, the actor would blend into the scenery. (As in those old Cold War movies where all the Russians speak with British accents.)

But when you cast the great Shohreh Aghdashloo as Bahari’s mother, and Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani as Bahari’s sister, and Turkish actor Haluk Bilginer as Bahari’s father, with more Middle Easterners in most of the supporting roles and as extras, then the lead actor’s heritage becomes an unavoidable elephant in the room.

That room, for most of the movie, is Bahari’s prison cell, and while the film keeps telling us that Bahari survived his ordeal by freeing his mind from imprisonment and eventually outsmarting his rosewater-scented interrogator (Kim Bodnia), we are told that he’s doing so more than we’re seeing it. Many of Bahari’s scenes in his cell involve hokey visits from the ghosts of his father and sister — both of whom were political prisoners under different Iranian regimes — and there’s really only one scene where he uses his wits to turn the tables on his captors.

Early in the story, Stewart dazzles us by showing Bahari walking down a street in London, with his memories appearing as displays in the windows of various shops. If Bahari’s imagination got him through his time as a captive, “Rosewater” offers no similar visual flourishes (besides all those conversations with the departed) to express his imagination.

There is some humor to be found here, of course, and a bit of exploration of the sheer boredom of being trapped for days inside four white walls, and moments of real connection between Bahari and both his family and the political revolutionaries he gets to know on the street. But Stewart doesn’t pursue any of these ideas enough to stick, resulting in a film that relates incidents without ever really telling much of a story.

The real Bahari’s courage inspires admiration, but “Rosewater” seems like a missed opportunity to pay tribute to it.

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