“Rosewater,” Jon Stewart’s directorial debut about the 2009 detention of Iran-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael García Bernal) that opens this weekend, is an undeniably serious movie, but one that makes excellent use of Stewart’s fine-tuned sense of humor.

After Bahari was jailed while covering the Iranian elections, in part because of an appearance he made on Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” much of the film is taken up with an extended series of interrogations. And while the scenes are occasionally brutal, they are often hilarious, even deeply silly. “The American government does not control Newsweek magazine,” Bahari tries to convince his jailer (Kim Bodnia) at one point. “To be honest, it’s not even worth anything anymore. The weekly model of magazines, it doesn’t work.” At another, the man demands to know “Who is Anton Chekhov?” “Anton Chekhov the playwright?” Bahari says, surprised. “You tell me. It is you who have listed an interest in him on Facebook,” his interrogator replies, confident he has caught Bahari in some kind of deception.

But for all “Rosewater” simultaneously lionizes Bahari and deftly probes the way his jailer is also caught up in the terrible machine of the Iranian state, the movie made me wish mostly that Stewart’s audience might find itself drawn to the work of Iranian filmmakers and journalists. I am thinking specifically of Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, the filmmaker whose movie “Tales” has lingered with me long after the Toronto International Film Festival. “Tales” does not yet have a release date in the United States, which is a shame, and certainly one positive after-effect of “Rosewater” might be for it to find a distributor.

AD
AD

Like “Rosewater,” Bani-Etemad’s movie is about a journalist — sort of. Habib Rezaei plays a man with a camera who wanders in and out of the movie’s vignettes, catching a ride from the airport with cabdriver Abbas, shooting a story at a shelter for women recovering from drug addiction where one of the employees, Nargess, hides from her abusive husband. “Sir, who do you show these films to? And if they see them, so what?” Mrs. Touba, who is trying to get her son out of jail, demands of the cameraman, reminding him, and us, that life goes on once the camera is off and the audience has turned its attention elsewhere.

Movies about censorship or repression such as “Rosewater” always really have the regime that they are criticizing as a main character. By contrast, the short stories that make up “Tales” are relentlessly personal.​ And they end up providing a much broader portrait of life in Iran (and life in general) than a movie like “Rosewater” possibly could, even though Bahari’s sources do widen the lens somewhat.

“Don’t you have a brother to keep from doing this?” the cabbie asks a prostitute who he reluctantly agrees to take on as a fare. “I don’t have a brother, and I don’t have time for preaching,” the woman tells him.

AD
AD

At the shelter, Nargess begs the director not to turn her out when her abusive husband shows up at the door. “I’ll work here as a slave, just don’t let him take me,” she pleads. “Just because you’re the husband, you can do whatever you want?” the shelter director scolds the man, who seems pathetic. But when Nargess finally ventures out to speak to the man, he has a charisma that is bound up in and fueled by pathos and menace. “How could I do this to those eyes?” he moans. “For God’s sake, come back to me, Nargess. I don’t have anyone but you.” It is harder to think of a better summary of the dynamics of domestic violence in a single scene.

In other vignettes, characters try to work around profound failures of communication. Reza, an illiterate factory worker, becomes convinced that a letter to his wife is proof that she is having an affair. But because he cannot read it, he can find out the truth only by demanding that she explain its contents, letting his suspicion (and feelings of inadequacy about their jobs) poison their relationship before he even knows whether he has cause.

In another, a young couple talk their way around something that might prevent them from having the romantic relationship they so badly desire, unable until the last moment to speak the words out loud.

Censorship matters, certainly. But so do the voices speaking so quietly that the censors never know they are there to be silenced.

AD
AD