TORONTO (Reuters) - The true story of a journalist accused by Iran of being a Western spy, thrown into solitary confinement and tortured for months would not seem to invite humor, or dancing for that matter.
But journalist Maziar Bahari has an acute appreciation for the absurd, and in bringing his harrowing tale to the big screen in "Rosewater," he found a director and actor who knew how to seize on the comedy in the tragedy.
The director and screenwriter is Jon Stewart, one of the biggest names in American comedy as host of late-night television satire "The Daily Show." "Rosewater", his directorial debut, screened at the Toronto International Film Festival Monday.
Bahari is played by Gael Garcia Bernal, the Mexican actor who has worked with acclaimed directors like Alfonso Cuaron and Pedro Almodovar.
"It was Maziar who has this caustic humor and in a very beautiful way, that humor was what made him survive this," Garcia Bernal told Reuters.
Much of the humor comes late in the film, when the situation is most dire for the Tehran-born journalist who lives in London and has gone to Iran to cover the 2009 elections, leaving his pregnant wife at home.
Bahari was arrested by Revolutionary Guard police after giving footage of street riots to the BBC and spent 118 days in solitary confinement in jail. His interrogator known as Rosewater, played by Kim Bodnia, gives off that sweet scent but is bent on breaking down Bahari physically and emotionally to the point where he confesses to being a spy.
But Bahari learns to cunningly tease Rosewater - with a fabricated tale of his love of "massage" with several women, or with a riff on why in the world he would visit the state of New Jersey. When Rosewater grills him on what he knows about his Facebook friends, Bahari can hardly fathom the stupidity of the questioning.
"He was laughing inside, because he was like, 'This is ridiculous,'" said Garcia Bernal.
Bahari also laughs about his talks in his cell with the apparitions of his late father and sister, both imprisoned by Iranian authorities in decades past.
Despite his lack of experience directing, Stewart's comedic timing seems to come in handy in the form of witty dialogue and playful interaction between oppressed and the oppressor.
One positive review from the BBC noted that "Stewart works with astounding confidence and skill; he's a born storyteller with a gift for sculpting drama out of the smallest actions."
For Stewart, bringing Bahari's humor to the fore was the way to show him reclaiming his humanity from the repressive regime. He told the Toronto audience that humor and dance are "the two most simplistic and guttural expressions of your humanity."
The dance in question is Bahari's poetic rebuke. Alone in his cell, he swirls and leaps with abandon to a Leonard Cohen song playing in his head, sending a not-so-subtle message of his strength to his captors watching on a screen.
Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson and Andrew Hay