” He who knocks on the door at midnight has come to kill the light.”

— Persian poet Ahmad Shamloo

At first we’re ready to see if comedian/talk show host Jon Stewart can cut it as a first time film director, especially with such dark material. This is, after all, the dark story of Maziar Bahari, (played here by Gael Garcia Bernal, the Mexican actor who so brilliantly played Che Guevara) the Newsweek journalist who went home to his native Iran on assignment, to cover the 2009 elections and Green Revolution that threatened the standing regime and cemented Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s role as President.

It’s not long before we know that Stewart has a firm hand on his material. In his telling, things go bad very quickly. After Maziar visits his aging mother (the wonderful Shoh Aghdashloo) and makes a Skype call home to his pregnant wife (Claire Foy), the knock on the door comes. He is arrested, thrown into solitary, and his long days and nights of terror begin.

For the next two hours and Maziar’s 118 days, we watch him try to hold himself together, as his appointed interrogator (Kim Bodnia) questions him endlessly about all the innocent details that keep mounting against him. It’s clear the administration needs a spy to hang on the West.

Maziar has in his luggage a DVD of the television series “The Sopranos,” that his captors screen and decide is pornography. “You went to New Jersey? Why do you go to New Jersey?”

They find books with strange names and a question on his Facebook page about Anton Chekhov. “Who is this Chekhov? Russian? KGB?”

This, of course, is Maziar’s true story, based on his book “Then They Came For Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival,” and that fateful election giving Ahmadinejad’s rise to power. We hold on, and so does Bahari, until the shadows of his mind thicken and all the light of his life begins to fade. He is almost always blindfolded but for a few moments.

Maziar is never really horribly tortured, but for a beating now and then. His captors are modernists at this game. “He must be deprived of hope,” one says. And that begins to work. Maziar, cut off from life, starts having conversations with his dead father (Haluk Bilginer) who had been imprisoned by the Shah of Iran for being a communist. The hallucinated conversations seem to strengthen him for a while, until his captors tap his computer and show him the skyped videos of his crying wife.

Soon, the inevitable cracks appear. He signs a document confessing his association with the FBI, CIA and most hideous to them, Newsweek Magazine. It’s run on international newscasts.

Even then, Maziar is convinced they’ll kill him anyway.

But he is unaware that his mother, and his wife in London, have started the process of finding and freeing him, leading to the involvement of then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The idea arises in our cynical minds here, that someone should have called the Clintons right away and avoided the 118 days.

Director/writer Stewart shoots some very good scenes in the streets of the movie’s Tehran, when the failure of the Green Party’s candidate sparks riots. We meet dozens of young militants, all headed for the same prison.

But the power of the film is in the two minds at combat in the gray cells of the prison, the Kafkian duel between the marvelous Kim Bodnia, known as “Rosewater” for the cheap cologne he wears, and the fragile, naive newsman.

We’ve seen such duels many times in many films from dozens of directors, but this, largely because of the duel nature of the interrogator, who fights with his own inner sense of honor, is the best.

Bodnia, an accomplished Mid Eastern actor emerges as the real star of “Rosewater.”

As a fan of composer singer Leonard Cohen, I must bring attention to one delicious scene, when Bernal, fighting to stay lucid, starts dancing to Cohen’s “Dance Me To The End of Love.” He is watched on camera by his captor, but only the prisoner can hear the music in his mind. Brilliant.

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.


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