It’s hard to imagine how anyone could find levity in telling a story of political imprisonment under a totalitarian regime. Jon Stewart, beloved comedian and the long-time driving force behind the satirical institution that is The Daily Show, found how humor helped alleviate a crisis in the horrific story of journalist Maziar Bahari’s 118-day imprisonment in Iran’s Evin Prison in 2009.

Bahari, who was arrested by Iranian authorities for suspected seditious activity in his coverage of the 2009 Iranian presidential election, is portrayed in the movie by Gael Garcia Bernal (star of Y Tu Mama Tambien and The Motorcycle Diaries). We watch “Mazi” as he meets with everyday Iranians, speaks with his pregnant fiancee in London on the phone, and reconnects with his mother, played by veteran Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo. In his direction, Stewart demonstrates a skill for injecting just enough humor to keep the proceedings from drowning in horror, but not so much as to distract from the seriousness of the topic or treat the subject matter with disrespect.

In one scene, lead interrogator “Rosewater” (played by veteran Danish actor Kim Bodnia) refers to a Sopranos DVD as “porno”, while a Leonard Cohen record is dismissed as “Jewish porno”. In another scene, Rosewater implies New Jersey, specifically Fort Lee, is a mecca for twisted perverts and haven for seedy activity. Stewart, as he has expertly done at the Daily Show for so many years, finds the humor in the outlandish views of people in an isolated, insular society.

This balance of humor and drama climaxes during a turning point in the plot when Bahari decides to try a new tactic with his interrogator. Rosewater attempts to sully Bahari’s character by accusing him of sleeping with prostitutes. Rather than try to refute the outlandish claim, Maziar doubles down, giving Rosewater a graphic description of a brothel he visited, enrapturing his captor, who is oblivious to the fact that he is being lied to. Having finally found a way to break through Rosewater’s gruff demeanor, a series of shots follow in which Bahari “owns up” to various nefarious behaviors, to Rosewater’s astonishment. Bahari is successful in reducing the physical violence that is meted out to him as he works towards a release from Evin.

Rosewater is not a comedy, nor is it a dark, biting satire. It is primarily a drama that seeks to celebrate the power of one man’s resilience and boldly underline the need for a free and open press. In his direction, Stewart proves adept at evoking the deep psychological wounds that solitary confinement in a place like Evin Prison can inflict. This is highlighted in scenes where Maziar finds the desperate scrawls of ex-prisoners on the walls of his cell and experiences flashbacks about his father and sister (themselves political prisoners under earlier oppressive Iranian regimes). The viewer is also reminded of the horrors of physical torture, as we see Rosewater brutalize the innocent Bahari in scene after scene.

Rosewater isn’t perfect; though Bernal and Bodnia portray their characters well, I felt the film could have benefited from recruiting more Iranian talent for the sake of authenticity. The two leads’ accents are a bit too generic and lack the subtleties of the Iranian brogue; more Farsi and less English in the dialogue would have helped with this. That said, Rosewater is an inspiring tale of perseverance and an important film that demonstrates the brutality and medieval thought processes of a totalitarian government.

– Dan D. 7/27/15