On the one hand, it might seem like an odd choice for a satirical comedian with his own cable show to tackle weighty material like the hotly contested 2009 elections in Iran between the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his liberal challenger, Mir-Hossein Mousavi. On the other hand, anyone who’s seen Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show will know that its creator delivers harder hitting news on Comedy Central than most talking heads do on CNN, MSNBC, and most certainly Fox News. Stewart makes his directorial debut with Rosewater, which he adapted from Maziar Bahari’s 2011 memoir, Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival. Documentary filmmaker and Newsweek correspondent Bahari tells the story of his incarceration in Tehran’s Evin Prison following Ahmadinejad’s much disputed reelection in 2009. Mexican-born actor Gael García Bernal, best known to American audiences for his roles in Bad Education and The Motorcycle Diaries, plays Bahari, powerfully capturing the man’s extraordinary mixture of grit and delicateness, both in manner and his approach to the highly charged subject matter.
Born in Iran but based in the West since college, Bahari plays the dual role of insider and outsider. To American viewers, he is the entry point to a culture few Westerners can truly grasp. Yet, as a native Iranian, Bahari can not only immerse himself in ways no American could but also draw personal parallels between his own situation and that of family members, particularly his father and sister’s imprisonments in the 1950s under the Shah and in the 1980s under Ayatollah Khomeini, respectively. Stewart’s film is at its strongest during the tense prison interrogation scenes, when Bahari is questioned—to put it mildly—by a man he calls Rosewater, due to his distinctive scent. His interrogator is a member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Played by Kim Bodnia—who’s a household name in Denmark and probably best known to English-speaking audiences for his role in Susanne Bier’s 2011 Academy Award-winning film, In a Better World—the titular Rosewater is everything Bahari is not: solid, thuggish, and extremely violent. Just looking at the two men side by side is enough to remind viewers that Bernal has the lithe build of soccer player while Bodnia could easily stand in for the American kind of football player.
It’s a no-brainer that you should add Bahari’s memoir to your to-read stack, though it’s not essential to do so before seeing the film. If you’re one of those people who despises movie tie-in editions, you can still find the book published under its original title. And if you don’t care, be on the lookout for the new edition—titled Rosewater with the same subtitle—that came out in trade paperback from Random House in October. In addition to getting an in-depth—at times almost painfully, but necessarily, so—look at life in Iran and very real danger of political protest, Bahari (and Stewart as his cinematic translator) gives readers a poignant view of a man who’s separated from his wife and thousands of miles away from the impending birth of his daughter in London. This is a story, both on the page and the silver screen, that’s not to be missed.