Rosewater, the feature film directorial debut of Comedy Central’s Daily Show host Jon Stewart, is off to a good start both critically and commercially.
The film tells the true story of Maziar Bahari, a London-based Iranian-Canadian journalist who traveled to Tehran to cover the 2009 Iranian elections. After Bahari appeared on The Daily Show that summer to speak about his experience, he was arrested by Iranian authorities on suspicion of being a spy and imprisoned for four months, where he was interrogated and beaten before finally being released.
According to Box Office Mojo, the film, starring Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal as Bahari, took in an estimated $422,000 on Friday from just 371 locations, good for a $1,137 per-theater average.
Speaking to the Chicago Tribune, Stewart said he wanted his film to be a realistic exploration of Bahari’s feeling of imprisonment.
“In a standard narrative form, you allow the audience off the hook to some extent, showing life outside of prison,” Stewart told the paper. “We wanted to push it as far as I could, with the discomfort and the claustrophobia. When we do go outside, the audience feels the relief. There has to be enough discomfort there, so that when it’s relieved, the audiences get some small hint of what it must’ve been like.”
New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis thinks Stewart succeeded, writing that “it’s in Evin prison that Mr. Stewart does his best work, specifically in the scenes between Maziar and the man who gives the movie’s title its nauseating, sickly meaning, the guard (an excellent Kim Bodnia) whose rosewater perfume can’t obscure the stench that wafts off his body, and announces his presence to his blindfolded prisoner.”
“Mr. Stewart’s interest in the material is obviously personal, but his movie transcends mere self-interest,” Dargis added.
Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers gave the film three out of four stars, writing: “That the movie is as tense and chilling as it is owes much to Stewart’s keen eye for the way humor surfaces even in the dark places.” And NPR’s Bob Mondello also praised the film, saying it “has an urgency that’s all about the storytelling smarts of its first-time writer-director.”
“It’s also got first-rate acting, the nuance about media manipulation you’d expect from Stewart, and even cinematic grace notes, as when Bernal, in a burst of antic feeling after months of isolation, dances in his cell, remembering a Leonard Cohen song his sister played for him as a child,” Mondello added.
Stewart told the Chicago Tribune that he didn’t feel a sense of obligation to make the film, even though his show played a role in the events that led to Bahari’s arrest and imprisonment.
“I don’t think ‘guilt’ is the right word,” Stewart said. “‘Astonishment’ is the better phrase. There was never a moment doing that segment (shot in Iran) where we didn’t believe we were doing something utterly benign. It was astonishing to us that something so… flavorless could be weaponized, in a way. The memoir Maziar wrote was beautiful.”
That memoir is Bahari’s 2011 book, Then They Came For Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival, on which Stewart’s movie is based. Bahari, for his part, told the Tribune that he does not blame Stewart or the Daily Show for his ordeal.
“I had no problem, no trepidation whatever,” Bahari said. “The Daily Show had nothing to do with my arrest; the government wanted to implicate me in some sort of scenario, and in the absence of any evidence that I was actually a spy, that’s what they brought forward.”