When Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael García Bernal) is taken from his mother’s home at the start of Rosewater, he takes a moment to look out the car window. As the frame pans right, approximating his view from the back seat, you see his mother, Moloojoon (Shohreh Aghdashloo), standing outside her home, bright in the sunlight, she holds her hand near her face in a gesture of dismay and fear.
The cut back to Maziar’s own face, framed more tightly and in a grim, low light. His own dismay escalates by the moment in Rosewater, Jon Stewart’s evocation of his friend Bahari’s ordeal, which is to say, his imprisonment for 118 days on charges of espionage. Based on the journalist’s 2011 memoir, Then They Came for Me, the movie is by turns reverential and irreverent, solemn and furious, subtle and too obvious. The shot of Moloojoon is all of that at once, revealing Maziar’s heartbreak and yearning, but only hinting at what she’s feeling, how she might possibly be responding to this instant of horror.
This shot looks backward and forward, and will come back later in the film, with more explanation and context. For now, though, it hangs in your memory, as you head off to Evin Prison, notorious for the many torments inflicted on inmates. Maziar, in fact, has some vague sense of what might be coming, as both his father (Haluk Bilginer) and sister Maryam (Golshifteh Farahani) were imprisoned and tortured by the Shah. Both appear as ghosts and flashbacks here, the father sharing advice on how to survive intact, with, as he puts it, a sense of “dignity”, and his sister soothing a young Maziar, insisting that all will be fine. Maziar lurches between hope and despair, fearful that he’ll never see his pregnant girlfriend Paola (Claire Foy) again, haunted by her image on Skype early on (cautioning him to leave Iran, that staying is “dangerous”) or in his memory later, a gauzy perfection.
Daily, he’s pursued emotionally and often physically by a guard (Kim Bodnia) assigned to force his confession that he’s a spy for the West. This notion is tied to Maziar’s appearance on The Daily Show, opposite fake correspondent Jason Jones in a segment scheduled to coincide with the 2009 election Maziar was sent by Newsweek to cover when he was arrested. The guard — who smells of rosewater — comes at Maziar with a mix of brutality and frustration, not getting irony, titillated by sex talk, sure that he’s always this close to getting the confession that will also free him. Most of Rosewater takes an insistent focus through Maziar, his sensory limits indicated by angled frames, close spaces, scary sounds from neighboring cells, and long fantastic shots of utterly bleak hallways. But when, for a few precious moments, the camera follows the guard into his crude room of an office, where you see him in his own tiny world, battered by his own boss, promised that this one monumental prize confession will allow him to cease the job he loathes.
That this doesn’t happen is no surprise to anyone but the guard, his suddenly pale and crestfallen face giving way to a physical fury he hasn’t shown previously. Here you get the idea that this torturer, however monstrous, has reason for what he does, however illogical and unfounded and based in abject fear and misery. This speaks more generally to the population who look the other way when neighbors are removed, when they witness violence, when they know of corruption and abuse but feel powerless to do anything but try to survive.
The film makes the case that even such fear is hardly confined to populations like Iran’s, that Westerners who imagine themselves free also succumb to going along, the easiest course, the one framed by deadlines and long hours, as well as the distractions that might make such unimaginative living seem fine. Maziar, in love with movies and magazines and the technologies that make his life possible, doesn’t appreciate that he has what a friend calls “the greatest weapon”, a camera and a means to let images loose, he doesn’t think beyond his own life’s confines until he’s physically confined and made afraid, existentially.
For all the desperation it reveals, Rosewater is also suffused with hope and even joy, most vividly in the moments when Maziar realizes that, despite all the berating and lying to which the guard subjects him, he is not forgotten or even alone. His realization is managed visually by a method that’s partly corny but also, weirdly, thrilling, as signs of social media — tweets, hashtags — float over the screen, pale blue and mobile, as if a force of community-making in themselves. It’s a fiction, of course, and not nearly so moving as the images of Moloojoon and Paola also mobile, on phones, traveling on TV, making the case to an almost unimaginably large community that Maziar and others are incarcerated, that the election is a sham, that promises are broken and that people must act.
However much this resolution is pretty to think so, it is also the only possible resolution that might allow anyone, including the guard, to go on.