Based on the true story of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari and his book Then They Came for Me, this movie follows a journalist (Gael García Bernal) who is made prisoner in Iran while covering the country's presidential elections. He is detained there for more than 100 days, during which he is subjected to brutal interrogations.

When parody becomes political, it's no laughing matter

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: That the leadership of Iran has no sense of humour will not surprise even those vaguely acquainted with that Islamic republic. Ayatollahs are not known for their timing, or grasp of comic nuance. Even so, the incident that led to the arrest and detention of London-based Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari feels like fodder for political satire. In 2009, as controversy surrounding Iran’s national election led to chaos in the streets of Tehran, Bahari appeared on The Daily Show, the American news parody program, for a typically silly interview. Correspondent Jason Jones refers to Bahari, a Newsweek reporter, as a terrorist and a spy, the idea being that only a deranged regime could believe this to be so. Indeed, that interview led to Bahari’s arrest and almost four months in prison, under suspicion of spying for the American imperialists.

No one laughed then, especially not Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show and now the director of Rosewater, his first film. Stewart’s feature-directing debut is also act of contrition: the film’s existence speaks to a sense of remorse about what happened to Bahari (played here by Gael Garcia Bernal), though within it Stewart leaves aside the thorny issue of whether there are or should be boundaries to political satire, when the impulse to make a joke of something serious does more harm than good. Instead the focus is squarely on Bahari (the script was adapted from his 2011 memoir Then They Came for Me), who as the film opens is being interrogated in the Tehran home of his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo). His interrogator (Kim Bodnia), whom Bahari names “Rosewater” for his distinctive scent, appears as something of a clown, finding “porno” everywhere in Bahari’s belongings. A Sopranos DVD? “Porno.” A Pasolini film? “Porno.” An issue of Maxim? Well, that might be porno.

At such moments, which only intensify when Bahari begins using Rosewater’s obvious sexual repression as a weapon during their long interrogation scenes, Stewart’s dark humour flickers through. Bernal’s sensitive, leveling presence keeps the tone from lurching too violently through these bouts of mischief, as does Stewart’s command of the second half of the film, which Bahiri spends either alone in his cell or undergoing another absurd interrogation. Where that command falters it does so precipitously: Stewart plants one or two seeds about Rosewater’s personal situation to help humanise him, and ostensibly add dimension to the psychological dynamic that takes shape between the two men. But Bahiri’s interrogator never emerges as more than a figure of brutality, scorn, and buffoonery.

"Stewart leaves aside the thorny issue of whether there are or should be boundaries to political satire"

In its handling of geopolitics, Rosewater is more persuasive in its depiction of the events leading up to Bahari’s arrest. The journalist connects with a charismatic fixer (Dimitri Leonidis), who takes him into the heart of what would become known as the “Green Movement,” mostly young people fed up with the leading regime. Bahari is drawn to their enthusiasm but also haunted by the long incarcerations of his father and sister, who were both arrested and imprisoned as political dissidents. During his time in solitary, Bahari communes with his deceased father (Haluk Bilginer), rendering some of the film’s most poignant—and pointed—moments. “Believe in something,” the father tells his son, “it’s your only hope.”

But belief itself is no protection, as Bahari points out and any number of extremist movements or wrong-headed regimes confirm. What to believe in? When to laugh in the face of so much pain? Stewart’s first effort is at least an introduction to these questions, suffering some time from the earnestness that attends cause-oriented filmmaking, and at other times from the glibness that comes with being Jon Stewart. The intention may have been to educate the viewers who were briefly entertained at Bahari’s expense; the result suggests the education of a committed satirist in the art of storytelling.