Rosewater **1/2

Is it worth $10? Yes

Timing is everything, and it just so happens that kidnapped journalists in the Middle East have recently been all over the news. The truth is it’s been happening for years, so to have a new release about a tortured journalist in Iran is serendipitous indeed. The fact that it’s a serious drama written and directed by comedian Jon Stewart (“The Daily Show”) makes it all the more intriguing.

Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) grew up in Tehran, Iran, but is now based out of London working as a journalist for “Newsweek.” It’s June 2009, and he leaves his pregnant wife (Claire Foy) behind to head to Tehran to visit his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and cover the election between incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mir-Hossein Mousavi. After Ahmadinejad wins in controversial fashion, Mousavi’s supporters protest, prompting Bahari to submit street riot video footage to the BBC. Shortly thereafter Bahari is arrested by Revolutionary Guard police and interrogated by a “specialist” (Kim Bodnia) who smells of rosewater, hence the film’s title. The charge? Bahari is suspected of being a spy. For 118 days, he’s asked about his writing, travel, Facebook page and more, never knowing if he’ll survive.

The narrative structure is necessarily but unfortunately one-dimensional. Bahari is psychologically (not physically) tormented by the specialist, envisions conversations with his dead dad and sister, rinse, repeat. The intention is to capture a sense of life inside the prison, so this part is understandable if tedious.

The problem, though, is that it puts impetus on Stewart to vary the pace of the editing and/or provide a production design with more color in order to imbue a sense of energy and life. He doesn’t. As a result “Rosewater” is dull and monotonous at times, with muted colors and costumes (even Bahari’s wife, who’s in the real world, wears plain beige) doing little to provide a visually interesting look.

To their credit Bernal and Stewart convey a harrowing story of survival and, working from the real Bahari’s book (called “Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival,” co-written with Aimee Molloy), appear to have presented a truthful account of what it’s like to be a political prisoner in Iran. Clearly Bahari was scared, and got to a point where he would do or say anything to get out. It seems honest, which makes the drama feel more real. After all, integrity and values aren’t so great when they’re causing incredible pain.

How much truth (versus artistic license) is in “Rosewater”? Doesn’t matter. The bottom line is whether the story works as a film – not as a recollection of truth – and the answer is a moderate “yes” due to the acting and timeliness of its subject matter. Let’s hope Stewart uses this as a springboard to a directing career, and that next time he does the biting social satire his “Daily Show” fans have grown to expect. Still, not a bad first outing behind the camera.

Did you know?

During the real Bahari’s imprisonment the captors used an interview he did with comedian Jason Jones for “The Daily Show” as evidence against Bahari. In the interview Bahari called in Ahmadinejad an “idiot.”

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