Example: Bahari’s backstory is told in voice-over as he’s out for a walk in the city. But we can’t just have the words; Stewart projects images from Bahari’s past, from the world at large, even from the movies he loves over the windows and gates of the storefronts he passes, nudging the aesthetic out of narrative and into music video (or, perhaps, After Effects demo reel). And that’s not the only way the narration is undercut — describing his father’s imprisonment, Bahari says, “He gave them noting,” which is then followed by his father whispering, “I gave them nothing.” “He never broke,” Bahari continues. “I never broke,” his father confirms. It’s a small moment, but the effect is jarring; you usually have to go to a preschool to see this much hand-holding.
Later, as Bahari describes the post-election protests, he explains how social media played a role in the dissemination of information. But he can’t just tell us about it and show us the protests; the film superimposes animated hashtags over the events, which then rise out of the streets and up to the heavens, where they form a big hashtag word cloud, accompanied by inspirational music. It is, to put it politely, a bit much.
Such flourishes — along with the decision to open the film with both a childhood flashback and a bit of subtitled poetry — play like a filmmaker trying too hard, assuring us that he’s making a real movie here, though they have precisely the opposite effect. He proves his skill elsewhere, in far less obvious ways. Stewart’s style is mellow and (these instances aside) unobtrusive, and he’s got a fine eye for cinematic composition (there’s a great image of Bahari’s driver praying on the side of the highway while the journalist waits patiently). He also shows a sure hand for a kind of simple magic realism in the scenes where Bahari offsets his imprisoned loneliness by imagining conversations with his father and sister.
And the dialogue scenes are natural, unforced, and lived-in — so much so that it’s tempting to ignore the fact that almost all of them are in English. Yes, this is another one of those movies where somehow no one speaks to each other in their native tongue, although “native tongue” is a bit of a tricky concept here, since Iran-born Bahari is played by Mexico-born Gael García Bernal, his chief antagonist by Denmark-born Kim Bodnia. Both the language and casting decisions were presumably made to keep from scaring away gun-shy audiences, but who’re we kidding? It’s not like a lack of subtitles and the hunk from Y Tu Mama Tambien are going to make Rosewater a crossover box office smash. If anything, they sacrifice credibility in the eyes of the art-house audience that’s most likely to embrace the picture.
This is not to take anything from the performances of Bernal (who’s utterly convincing, and whose work is particularly impressive considering how much of it is done behind a blindfold) and Bodnia. In fact, the picture is at its best in the second half, when it focuses on their interrogations and becomes a two-handed mind game of rapidly increasing stakes. Here, Stewart knows when to keep the scenes simple, when to build and release tension, and when to offset the humidity with a well-chosen bit of humor (some of it, unsurprisingly, New Jersey-based).
One of the most effective early moments in Rosewater finds Bahari being chastised for the timidity of his reporting. “You have a red button,” he’s told, referencing the record button on his video camera, “and you choose not to use it.” The message of that scene, regarding the understandable yet counterproductive instinct to play it safe, could easily apply to the picture as well; Stewart’s earnestness and intentions are admirable, particularly as he could have made his directorial debut with, say, a political comedy of the Wag the Dog ilk rather than something so weighty and serious. He took a commendable risk, and were Rosewater the debut picture from an up-and-comer we’d never heard of, I don’t doubt I’d have cut it a bit more slack. On the other hand, I’m not sure that even a no-name first-timer would have presumed an audience needed this story spoonfed quite to the degree that Rosewater does.
Rosewater is out Friday.