'Rosewater': What the Critics Are Saying

Jon Stewart's debut as a feature-film director with Gael Garcia Bernal and Kim Bodnia adapts Maziar Bahari's memoir of being held in a Tehran prison

Rosewater — starring Gael Garcia Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Halah Bilginer and Shohreh Aghdashloo — offers a fictional account of London-based Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari's memoir Then They Came for Me, which details his period in a Tehran prison in June of 2009 after being arrested while covering the 2009 elections for Newsweek.

The Open Road release is marks the feature directorial debut of Jon Stewart, who featured Bahari before and after the ordeal on The Daily Show, and made the film while John Oliver took over his Comedy Central series last summer.

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See what top critics are saying about Rosewater:

The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy says, "It's never the wrong time to protest tyranny, unjust imprisonment, torture and totalitarian tactics," but "if this very same film had been made by an unknown director, it would pass in the night with only scant notice." For example, "the way the story unfolds, there really isn't a message per se other than a general one about not giving up hope; the political and personal lessons here don't seem particularly profound or instructive." However, "Stewart and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski cover it all in a straightforward, watchable way, the performances are all sincere and solid and the situation is easy to respond to emotionally. But as a case history in the annals of political repression, it feels like a bit of a sideshow."

The New York Times' Manohla Dargis notes the film "is an argument for filmmakers to start their trade after they’ve looked beyond the limits of their own horizons." Stewart "gives the movie a run-and-gun tremble that’s familiar from documentaries and war movies. This visual approach ... contributes to the you-are-there authenticity that, at first, fights with some of Mr. Stewart’s other choices, including casting a well-known Mexican actor as his lead and having the Iranian characters speak in accented English." However, "whatever the reason Bernal was hired, whether it was a question of getting the movie financed or simply a matter of directorial taste, his intensely sympathetic screen presence suddenly makes sense. And it’s in Evin Prison that Stewart does his best work."

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Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan writes, "Stewart acquits himself solidly, though not thrillingly, as a beginning director, doing especially well in the film's involving central section dealing with Bahari's time in prison, where the filmmaking is as compelling as the feature's intentions are admirable." Rosewater "is strongest in detailing the insidious mind games that Bahari's captors play, how effectively this kind of pressure and isolation can be in changing even a sane person's perceptions of reality. ... [It] ends well for Bahari, and while that's the reality as well as a relief, the way it's portrayed on screen plays too self-congratulatory for its own good."

The Washington Post's Michael O'Sullivan calls it "both a faithful and a forceful adaptation" of the memoir. Bodnia plays the the title character "with a blend of cruelty, thickheadedness and false kindness that comes across as just as maddening on film as it does in Bahari’s book," and "by casting a Mexican (Bernal) and a Dane (Bodnia) in the lead roles — both of which are acted superbly — Stewart seems to be suggesting that this isn’t just an Iranian problem. Rosewater doesn’t hector, nor does it giggle about the issue of press freedom. It’s an impressive and important piece of storytelling."

Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips explains, "Stewart has serious, dramatically astute talent behind the camera, as well as (big shock) a sense of humor. ... his wryly observant qualities as a TV star serve him well in his feature film debut." And of the cast, "no one's better than Aghdashloo, the veteran actress who plays Bahari's mother."

Email: Ashley.Lee@THR.com
Twitter: @cashleelee