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Jon Stewart’s Rosewater is Outraged, Cinematic, and Even Funny

During a 2009 Daily Show interview with Maziar Bahari, the Canadian-Iranian journalist who, earlier that year, had been imprisoned in Iran for 118 days on espionage charges, Jon Stewart said, “We hear a lot about the banality of evil, but so little about the stupidity of evil.” Or about its total humorlessness. Bahari had been arrested the previous June partly as the result of a Daily Show skit: Comedian Jason Jones, posing as the most phony-baloney spy imaginable, in a keffiyeh and dark glasses, interviewed Bahari in a Tehran café just before a fraught and ultimately explosive election. Why was Iran so evil? Jones demanded. The perfect straight man, Bahari gave a response that was deflective, sensitive, and articulate. That didn’t stop Iranian authorities from arresting him shortly after the election, four days after the episode aired, using The Daily Show as proof that Bahari himself was a spy.

Perhaps partly out of a sense of guilt, although probably mostly because he knows an astonishing story when he sees one, Stewart has made a movie — his debut as a director — based on Bahari’s experience. Rosewater is an earnest picture, but it’s also got some juice — there’s vitality and feeling in it, the secret ingredients so often missing from even the most well-intentioned first features. At the beginning of Rosewater, Gael García Bernal’s Bahari leaves his London home, and his pregnant wife, for what he thinks will be a routine visit to his hometown, Tehran, to cover the election for Newsweek. He hires a hip young driver, Davood (Dimitri Leonidas), who doesn’t actually have a car — just a shaky little motorbike. But Davood knows all the right people, and through him, Bahari meets a group of idealistic young men who have educated themselves by tapping forbidden TV channels via a wholly illegal garden of satellite dishes perched on a rooftop. (They call this makeshift institute of higher learning “Dish University.”) These guys make it clear they’ll be casting their vote for Mousavi, the challenger to the controversial, bellicose incumbent Ahmadinejad. To them, and to Bahari, it seems perfectly plausible, if not likely, that Mousavi could win a democratic election — provided the election in question is going to be at all democratic.

Meanwhile, Bahari meets with Jones (playing himself) and gives what he assumes is a harmless interview — between takes, he cracks up at the ridiculous obviousness of Jones’s spy shtick. A few days later, it’s not so funny: The election results spark violence, some of which Bahari captures on camera. He at first assumes that’s the reason he’s picked up by government goons, as his mother, played with authoritative gravity by Shohreh Aghdashloo, anxiously looks on. No wonder she’s worried: Both Bahari’s father and sister spent time in prison, during the eras of the Shah and the Ayatollah Khomeini, respectively. Still, Bahari can’t believe he’ll be held for long, until he realizes that his interrogator, a man known to him only as Rosewater (played by Kim Bodnia), genuinely believes that Newsweek is a spy organization. Bahari is routinely quizzed and beaten. His refusal to cooperate — because how, exactly, is he supposed to respond to these idiots? — lands him in solitary confinement. At one point, he’s led to believe he’s going to be killed.

We all know Stewart is a smart guy who’s good at talking. What’s surprising is how good he is at filmmaking. Stewart — who also adapted the script, from Bahari’s 2011 book, Then They Came for Me — understands that even a story relying largely on dialogue, as this one does, also needs to be cinematic. As Bahari, pre-arrest, walks down a Tehran street, he thinks of his father and sister, both now dead: Bernal recounts their stories in voiceover, and we see their images hazily reflected in the storefront windows he passes, ghosts brought vividly to life. In another sequence, Bernal’s Bahari performs an expressive solo ballet to Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love” — a song, and an artist, his sister had turned him on to — in his lonely, underfurnished cell. The music, of course, is playing only in his head, but his power to conjure it is key to his survival. The sight of Bernal leaping, twirling, and kicking to the sound of nothing — which is really the sound of everything — is the movie’s glorious visual centerpiece.

Bernal gives a thoughtful, delicately calibrated performance, and he’s funny, too: At the movie’s high point, Bahari outwits his pedantic interrogator in a way that’s pure comedy, so outlandish that you can’t believe it could actually work. But then, Bahari’s captors, blindly devoted to the religious supremacy of the state, aren’t terribly good at thinking for themselves. And it’s in setting the movie’s tone, layer by layer, that Stewart proves most adept. Bahari’s tormentor, endeavoring to get the prisoner to “confess,” sticks to his dumbest ideas with the tenaciousness of an octopus’s sucker. He cites items seized upon Bahari’s arrest — they include a DVD copy of Teorema, which the authorities have deemed “porno,” as well as a Cohen album and a Tintin book — as evidence of the journalist’s lack of moral steadfastness. At one point, the grand inquisitor asks Bahari, in all seriousness, about his affiliation with an individual named Anton Chekhov, whom Bahari has quoted admiringly on his Facebook page.

Rosewater isn’t one of those nicey-nice vehicles that takes pains to remind us that some people are just culturally “different” and thus can’t be held responsible for adhering to warped religious and political dogma. Instead, Stewart puts it pretty plainly: Some people are just idiots, and the stupidity of evil can kill you. Thank God Bahari managed to outsmart it.

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BAND OF BROTHERS

Today, Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal are two of the most accomplished actors, directors, producers who infiltrated American cinema in the early ’00s in a wave of thespians and filmmakers from Mexico. However, back in 2001, when Y Tu Mamá También was released, these two young men were up-and-coming indie actors with a certain gleam in their eye, and we just knew they’d hit it big. The film, about two best friends on a road trip to a mysterious beach with a Spanish beauty who’s hiding a secret, went on to win a slew of awards, and became a classic coming-of-age film. Tonight, Nitehawk reminds us why we fell in love with Luna and Bernal in the first place — as if we could ever forget.

Wed., May 21, 7:15 p.m., 2014

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Who is Dayani Cristal? Reveals Hot, Cold and Deadly Immigration Journeys

The Sonora Desert in Arizona is freezing at night, brutally hot in the day. The documentary Who is Dayani Cristal? reveals that the infrastructure dealing with illegal immigration into the United States from points south is likewise hot, cold, and unnecessarily deadly.

We meet Americans dedicated to identifying, even humanizing, the bodies found there. But the system is by design a trap. Director Marc Silver covers one immigrant’s journey, starting with his death.

He shows the workaday investigation by American officials and foreign consulates, and finds the people who knew the man, while Mexican actor Gael García Bernal retraces his migration, jumping on trains and bivouacking in shelters. (Most documentary acting is a drag, but Bernal is part in character, part investigator, and it works.)

This film is up to all kinds of things: It hangs on to its mystery, rakes up public policy arguments, gets close up on details (like fingerprinting a dead man), gives a lot of space to emotions, and follows Bernal from Honduras to Arizona. The cinematography is exquisite and sometimes it alone moves the story.

But it all remains cohesive, even poetic, and puts what had to have been formidable reporting to excellent use. This is the rare documentary with a spoiler — by the end, the title question is answered, though many terrible questions remain about how we should receive the ambitious poor people who are coming to America.

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The Loneliest Planet Sets a Course for Who Couples Truly Are

The Loneliest Planet begins with close-up trained on the body of a beautiful woman, naked and trembling. It’s not what it sounds like. Nica (Hani Furstenberg), on a pre-marriage honeymoon with fiancé Alex (Gael García Bernal) in rural Georgia, is in the midst of a makeshift shower. As Nica pogoes up and down on an unseen platform in an attempt to keep warm, her slim, androgynous body, doused in milky-white soap suds, becomes a blur of motion set to the violent beat of her feet. It takes a moment for the eyes to adjust, to register what we’re seeing: Is this body male or female? Is this a mundane act or some strange, exotic ritual?

With this opening image, writer-director Julia Loktev sets up her extraordinary second fiction feature in two ways: She announces an intention to explore sex and gender murkiness and warns that this is a film to watch carefully, one that demands distraction-free contemplation. Loktev takes a painterly approach, crafting a study in colors—the vibrant green landscape, entire campfire-lit scenes registering as dances of shadow and warm flashes of skin, Furstenberg’s wild red hair filling the frame—as she also charts the variable shades and tones of a single relationship. Within a scantily plotted, novella-style narrative (the movie is an adaptation of a short story by Tom Bissell), single shots become story events that mere mention would spoil.

By the time Alex and Nica hire a guide, Dato (played by real-life guide Bidzina Gujabidze), to lead them on a backpacking trip through a desolate Eastern European mountain range, the couple has already been on the road for three weeks, and they show little sign of wearing down each other’s nerves. They’re so comfortable together that they discuss bowel regularity, and yet they’re still hot enough for each other that a modicum of privacy leads to desperate groping. It’s an ideal relationship—or maybe just idealized. Out in the wild, they’ve sunk deep into each other, apparently having put aside their real world completely: There’s no mention of what they do for a living or where they live (other than “America”). They don’t use cell phones or even read books. It’s just them.

As Loktev documents their travels, she’s also showing us how this man and soon-to-be wife see each other. Nica prides herself on her toughness, in defiance of presumed feminine weakness. She shows off chin-ups while slightly pudgy Alex watches; she responds to every male show of concern for her physical capability with “I’m fine” or “Don’t worry. I’m strong.”

In one scene, a beautifully calibrated harbinger of doom, she gleefully schools the guide on the proper English pronunciation of the word “bitch” through raucous repetition.

And then something happens: In a moment of fear, Alex’s knee-jerk reaction reveals his own cowardice and puts Nica’s life at risk. The incident is never addressed after the fact, and yet its dark shadow hangs over and informs the film’s entire second half. The moment itself is jaw-dropping, and it casts an incredible tension over everything that follows. You don’t know what’s going to happen next, and Loktev has established a space in which it feels as though absolutely anything could.

The title, an apparent play on the Lonely Planet travel guides designed for boho tourists like Loktev’s couple, takes on more complicated connotations as the trio delve into rugged, desolate terrain. Those books are intended as salves for the worries of tourists heading into unknown territory, but their expertise is limited to experiences and conveniences that can be bought; any kind of mortal or existential quandary sparked by/on foreign soil is beyond their purview. In a good relationship, you feel like you can survive anything the world throws at you. Loktev expertly trains her camera through a fissure in such a bond and reveals an unshakable vision of the terror of facing the unknown without a guide.

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A Little Bit of Heaven

A successful young New Orleans ad exec living a no-frills, booty-on-call, single-by-choice lifestyle, Marley Corbett has a sunny irreverence and Teflon resistance to emotional attachment that leaves her happily impervious to just about everything, even when, one fine day, she’s diagnosed with colon cancer. Marley begins by treating the diagnosis as good material for “pain in the ass” jokes—which is, unfortunately, about the best that screenwriter Gren Wells has done for star Kate Hudson, who’s left to coast on her usual winsome nose-wrinkling charm until the progress of the illness gradually breaks down Marley and her defenses, allowing her to become truly intimate with her doctor, played by that well-formed manikin, Gael García Bernal. Essentially a rom-com deathwatch, A Little Bit of Heaven demands miracles of its cast to keep proceedings from becoming grindingly mawkish and does not get them, as Marley goes about making her amends to parents (Kathy Bates and Treat Williams, very clutch in his one scene) and friends. A beatifically smiling Whoopi Goldberg shows up briefly in the role of God, which should be a blazing red flag, while the film’s reassuring nondenominational concept of the afterlife, expressed by a cameo-ing Peter Dinklage, is a long, warm soak—exactly what A Little Bit of Heaven amounts to.

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Intriguing Meta-Cinema Ideas Undercut by Didactism in Even the Rain

Akin to Truffaut’s Day for Night as reimagined by Howard Zinn (to whom it’s dedicated), Even the Rain revolves around the Bolivia-set production of a celluloid epic about Columbus’s arrival in South America, a historical tale of abuse and rebellion that dovetails with an ongoing conflict between a multinational water company and the locals who, when not performing as part of the film’s cast, openly oppose it. Domestic unrest encircles the crew, which includes a bleeding-heart director (Gael García Bernal), a culturally insensitive money man (Luis Tosar), and a drunken star (Karra Elejalde), who wonders if the project—which slams the famed explorer and lionizes two 16th-century missionaries who championed equality for native Indians—is propaganda rather than art. The larger looming question is whether the film’s production is guilty of the very exploitation against which its story rails, and whether the entire endeavor is masturbatory when compared with active, here-and-now struggles. It’s an intriguing meta-cinema concern bolstered by solid performances. Yet with the film-within-a-film scripted sequences vainly striving for Terrence Malick-y lyricism, and the water-privatization narrative delivering moral-awakening didacticism, director Icíar Bollaín mixes Even the Rain’s various storytelling modes with an obviousness that ultimately negates enlightening intellectual or emotional discovery.

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Letters to Juliet, Fantasy Indeed

Blonde, pillow-topped, and spineless, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) has a secure fact-checking job and is engaged to Victor (Gael García Bernal), a hunky restaurateur of indeterminate exotic origin who dangles hot, fresh fettuccine into her mouth in a non-threatening, not-at-all-9 1/2 Weeks-ish way. But Sophie’s not satisfied: She really wants to write, an ambition that sets the eyes of both boyfriend and boss aglaze. When Victor seems more interested in spending their Italian vacation hunting for truffles than digging her, Sophie drifts off and ends up in Verona at the mythic home of Shakespeare’s Juliet, where a cadre of volunteer secretaries answer letters left behind by lovelorns. Soon, Sophie’s tagging along as English widow Claire (Vanessa Redgrave) visits a roundelay of Italian geezers to find the farmhand she loved and left back in the ’50s. Enter Claire’s no-fun lawyer grandson, Charlie (Christopher Egan), whose interest in Sophie’s writing makes up for his post-schoolboy prissiness. Juliet‘s core messages—date boys who are cool with you having a career and don’t settle; NYC wine snobs are selfish, but guys who grow grapes and/or do pro bono legal work will love you forever—are inoffensive, but they’re hardly the stuff of swooning fantasia. And fantasy Juliet clearly intends to be—too many plane tickets are booked last-minute without mention of the cost of the trip. Gary Winick’s flat direction does the material no favors: If Egan and Seyfried have any chemistry, it’s framed out of their awkwardly staged climactic kisses.

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No Success Like Failure for Bernal and Luna in Rudo y Cursi

Not quite The Further Adventures of Cain & Abel, the second coming of Beavis & Butt-Head, King Kong vs. Godzilla Redux, or Peyton Meets Eli, but energetic fun nonetheless, Rudo y Cursi is a multiple brother act: It’s written and directed by Carlos Cuarón and produced by elder sibling Alfonso, director of Y Tu Mamá También, which Carlos co-wrote, and reunites Mamá‘s co-stars (and childhood friends) Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna, playing half-brothers to boffo effect.

Nearly as popular on its home territory as the first Cuarón hit, Rudo y Cursi is a similarly manic, if less psychologically fraught, exercise in male-bonding and fraternal rivalry—rooted in a road-trip that the Cuarón brothers took in their twenties. It’s also a sports-inspirational story with a distinctively acrid twist. The self-deprecating attitude toward their homeland is apparent from the onset—a montage of rustic, rundown, empty soccer fields, followed by Cursi (Bernal) schlepping bananas at the rustic, rundown plantation, someplace in backwoods Jalisco, where Rudo (Luna), works as the assistant to the assistant foreman.

They’re a ripe pair of bumpkins—one needn’t understand much Spanish to catch their exaggerated patán cadences. Rudo, whose sobriquet means “tough,” is irascible and inarticulate; Cursi, dubbed “corny,” is expansive and voluble. Each, however, is a potential soccer star—or so we’re told by the good-natured little hustler, Batuta (Argentine comic Guillermo Francella), who, in discovering the brothers and providing the movie’s voiceover narration, more or less conducts the action. (The scout also supplies an appropriately macho running gag, showing up in every scene with a different tall, silent, well-endowed young woman in tow.)

Batuta can only take the brothers with him to Mexico City one at a time; thus we can enjoy their miserable digs, mind-blowing exposure to frozen food, locker room hazing, and heady success twice. Happy-go-lucky Cursi may be an unstoppable scoring machine and taciturn Rudo the greatest goalie in Mexican history, but the sports action runs a distant second to character comedy. Larded with hilarious crowd reaction shots, the only actual soccer game in the movie is the climactic match-up between the two brothers; the real competition is which of the two can be more self-destructive. Tone-deaf Cursi dreams of being a pop star; jealous family man Rudo is a compulsive gambler. Together, they make the archetypal doomed movie palooka, bewitched by bimbos and beholden to gangsters.

Rudo y Cursi is as fatalistic as any film noir, but it’s played for cartoonish screwball comedy. At once smooth and frantic, filled with cozy clutter and vulgar jive, the movie subsumes its moralizing in frat-house entertainment. What justice can you expect from a world where a man turns on the TV and learns that he’s been dumped by his fiancée, or a death threat is followed by the request for an autograph? At the height of their joint triumph, the brothers return home—their half-sister is marrying the local druglord—and compete over who will buy their mother a house on Chololo beach. (Three guesses as to which of them will prevail.)

Despite an undercurrent of violence, Rudo y Cursi eludes the tragic ending that seems to be its destiny. But even if the movie’s final shot is a Pacific paradise, the denouement is pretty downbeat—at least by the grotesque standards of the conventional North American sports movie. The rocky road to success is just a dead end (or a big circular drive). Circumstances may vary, but character is unchanging. As Octavio Paz wrote of his countrymen in The Labyrinth of Solitude, “To us a realist is always a pessimist.”

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TOGETHER AGAIN

The 2001 coming-of-age indie hit Y Tu Mamá También singlehandedly put Mexican cinema on the Hollywood circuit. Thanks to the on-screen chemistry (sexual and otherwise) of childhood friends and leading actors, Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna—and the talents of director Alfonso Cuarón and his brother, screenwriter Carlos Cuarón—the demand for these actors and filmmakers skyrocketed. Eight years and many successful films later, Bernal and Luna are back together in the new dramedy Rudo y Cursi, directed by Carlos Cuarón, as stepbrothers who quit their farm jobs to play professional soccer in Mexico City. Although this film can be categorized as the typical rags-to-riches story, the real draw is the intense dynamic and impeccable comic timing between the two stars. We only wish they were in every film together. At tonight’s preview screening, both Luna and Bernal will be on hand for the introduction. There better be a medic on site.

Wed., May 6, 7 p.m., 2009

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Knocking Down the Tower of Babel

In Martín Boulocq’s The Most Beautiful of My Very Best Years, Victor (Roberto Guilhon) tries to force Wong Kar Wai’s Fallen Angels onto a Cochabamba video store’s clientele. “Dude, who’s gonna buy a Chinese flick unless it has fights and kung fu?” one man winces. Maybe Aki Kaurismäki? “Dude, what do we know about Finland here in Bolivia?” says the same guy, before his ears perk up at the promise of Devastating Penetration Due to the Caliber of the Beast. The clerk’s struggle to enlighten his customers is flippant, but it’s also the struggle of this year’s Latinbeat festival, and of the filmmakers trying to break through—or defy—what’s considered fashionable in Latin-American filmmaking: the Amores Perros Model (otherwise known as “Mi Casa Looks Like Tarantino’s
Casa”).

The notion that no films worth seeing came out of Mexico between the time of Buñuel’s return to Europe and the release of Amores Perros is the same casual racism that inspired the popular media to dub Alejandro González Iñárritu, Guillermo del Toro, and Alfonso Cuarón “the Three Amigos” and put Gael García Bernal’s unconventional Mexican mug on the cover of fashion glossies. Food for corrective thought, this year’s Latinbeat sidebar—a tribute to four breakthroughs from Mexico’s New Cinema—is one part reality check and three parts wish fulfillment, recognizing as it does the popular impact of Amores Perros but also fancying an alternate universe where the comparably less chic cultural visions of Fernando Eimbcke (Duck Season), Carlos Reygadas (Japón), and Maryse Sistach (Violet Perfume) command similar attention and wield the same influence.

Though the Film Society of Lincoln Center prides itself on giving a home to distinctly un-Babel-ish portraits of Latin- American crisis and endurance, this year’s program is not without its populist pandering. Patricia Riggen’s Under the Same Moon stars Kate del Castillo as a Mexican illegal doing Crash--style cleaning duty in the home of a ghoulish Angeleno. Back in Mexico, her young son Carlitos (Eugenio Derbez) hitches a ride into the States under the backseat of a tuition-starved America Ferrara’s van, soothing the savage heart of the Mexican illegal who accompanies him on the preposterous road trip from Texas to California and trivializing immigrant dreams.

More grueling is García Bernal’s Deficit, the sort of indulgent lark we might expect from an actor with time and money to burn, but not from one of González Iñárritu’s and Walter Salles’s disciples. Beware, McCarren hipsters: This travesty of Soderberghian proportions may forever turn you off to pool parties.

Consider, then, the documentaries Soy Andina and My Grandmother Has a Video Camera as necessary palate cleansers—the former a quaint portrait of two women reclaiming their ethnic Peruvian heritage (see Tania Hermida’s How Much Further for its fictional analogue), the latter an insightful chronicle of a family’s cross-cultural disillusionment, told through the moving images that a Brazilian filmmaker and her avó photographed during their many years in America.

You can see Kaurismäki and Jim Jarmusch’s deadpan drollery in both Duck Season and Pablo Stoll and Juan Pablo Rebella’s Whisky, but the latter’s portrait of middle-class Uruguayan disaffection exudes a homegrown personality and humane tenderness that are uniquely its own. Marta (Mirella Pascual), a woman whose repeated invocations of God’s will points to a deep-rooted sense of emotional resignation, accepts her employer’s request to play house when his more charming brother comes to town in order to tend to their mother’s tombstone. Suggesting a generation’s death throe, the storyculminates in a bittersweet act of rebellion made all the more wrenching in light of Rebella’s suicide last year.

Argentina continues to bogart the Latinbeat lineup this year with a series of alternately cerebral and flashy sociopolitical and gender studies. But it is Brazil that reigns supreme. Sandra Kogut’s Mutum tips its campesino hat to Cinema Novo legend Nelson Pereira dos Santos, fixing lucid light on the brutal distress that the poverty of Brazil’s Sertão region inflicts on a young boy and his family. Elegiac and playful in equal measure, Kirill Mikhanovsky’s Fish Dreams is a more immaculate immersion in Latin-American experience, casually enthralled with a young man’s daily grind—fishing, drinking, cocooning from the world in love-struck melancholy. In his poignant vision of a village’s fragile subsistence, Mikhanovsky expresses unease at the global forces that threaten such unspoiled land (the film builds to the disposal of a ginormous television set that lulls everyone into submission). This is, after all, the kind of paradise gringos go crazy for.