Two modest films for your Thanksgiving season—both inspiring gratitude in different ways. The first is called Love is Strange, kind of an awkward title for a graceful movie. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina play Ben and George, an older gay couple in New York City, who finally get married when that state comes around to legalizing same sex marriage. We meet them at their wedding reception, surrounded by loving friends and family, and it all seems like the joyous culmination of their life-long passion and commitment. This, where most movies would end, is just where the story, written by Mauricio Zacharias and Ira Sachs and directed by Sachs, begins. Shortly thereafter, the Catholic school where George teaches music fires him because of getting married. The result is that the couple needs to downsize and find another affordable apartment, not an easy thing to do in Manhattan. In the mean time they’re forced to live apart temporarily, Ben with his nephew Elliot’s family, and George with two gay friends, cops, who have an apartment downstairs. The irony is that the right to get married, which was so liberating, has forced this couple apart—another cost of homophobia.
Anyway, the nephew’s wife Kate, a writer, played by Marisa Tomei, becomes irritated by Ben’s habits, which get in the way of her work, and her son Joey’s adolescent problems don’t help matters either. George’s roommates turn out to be party animals, which robs him of peace and quiet. The ordeals of trying to find a decent place to live have rarely been portrayed with this kind of gentle wisdom.
All this drama in a minor key works because of the skill and sensitivity of Lithgow and Molina, indelible in their vulnerabilities and humor. If I were forced to choose a favorite it would be Molina, who fits into his role with such ease. This is a film of honest emotions and insights, the central one being that love is really the only thing that matters.
And now from the personal to the political, although we know they’re the same. The second film is Rosewater, the directorial debut of Jon Stewart, popular host of The Daily Show. This is the true story of Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari, who returned to his homeland in 2009 to do a Newsweek story on the upcoming elections. As you may recall, the results were evidently fixed in favor of the fundamentalist conservatives, people took to the streets in protest, and then the protests were brutally suppressed by the regime. After shooting and sending out footage of state violence against demonstrators, Bahari was accused of being a spy for the West. He was imprisoned and tortured before international pressure won his release.
Bahari is played by Gael Garcia Bernal, a very charming and versatile actor, and his performance makes all the difference in what is in some ways an uneven film. The first part of the movie highlights the action in the streets of Tehran, and Stewart’s direction shows vitality here. The second half is about Bahari’s imprisonment, and at times the direction seems tentative in depicting this painful ordeal. The best moments are imagined dialogues between Bahari and his deceased father, who had been imprisoned as a Communist under the Shah, and a marvelous scene where a tactic used by his torturer in order to instill despair in his victim ends up backfiring and giving him hope instead.
Rosewater not only affirms the need for democracy in Iran, but the importance of protecting journalists and the freedom to report and investigate everywhere. To be grateful for our lives, we need to remember the suffering that many are undergoing as prisoners of conscience, those who resist the forces trying to make us less than human. Bahari, and Jon Stewart’s film, helps us remember.