Good Bye

01/29/2012

Iran / 2011 / Farsi

Directed by Mohammad Rasoulof

With Leyla Zareh, Fereshteh Sadreorafai, Shahab Hoseini

Still from 'Good Bye'Noora is an Iranian woman gradually and resolutely chipping away at the concentric walls surrounding her. As the obstacles pile up, revealed one at a time, she attempts to restack the sum total of a system that is stacked against her. A debarred lawyer with dangerous connections to human rights activists, she moves through a somber Tehran of art-nouveau buildings and spartan offices, bathed in nauseating clarity, as she tries to obtain visas for her and her husband, a journalist who has been targeted for censure in the past and is hiding in some undisclosed place. While the rules of her trip abroad (arranged for the purpose of a speaking engagement) are predetermined in detail, there is no doubt that she does not mean to follow it with a return to her country.

We follow Noora on numerous trips to the office of her visa sponsor, where the secretary, a short woman piled high with make-up, moves papers from a folder as though they were plates of glass, all the while assiduously avoiding eye contact with her. In her post-career career Noora works at home assembling decorative boxes. Throughout her days there is this sense of mobile tension, of things set into motion and moving forward quietly, and while more about them becomes clearer, like in the case of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman character, not a nip of where they might take us.

Without a husband present, with her, escorting her, simple bureaucratic tasks are difficult if not impossible to push through. She has his passport as well as her own, and tries to get through the red tape independently. She is also pregnant and trying to determine what, if anything, is wrong with the child. Even though behavior is tightly controlled the quality of life may be just as indifferent as before, with incompetent doctors and bribe demands still consistently there at every turn. There are clues here and there of a consortium of caring women, humanists and progressives, but she is smartly hesitant to contact them. One nurse whispers that she knows someone who can arrange an abortion for her. But as she works to overcome that which is in her way, there seems to arise an ever more apparent list of alternative options and ways out. And for all of her circumspection, she seems essentially to know where she is going, success having become a single pinpoint on the horizon. Her struggle for individual agency has become fruitless in Iran, and now her potential for helping others and herself can only be realized beyond its borders.

Still from 'Good Bye'So things are extremely complicated right now. But, as we understand, there is no reason for them to be. The character faces much the same situation as the film’s director has, a hopeless waltz with a paranoid shad0w-government. As swift as the powers-that-be work, they need not invest much energy into subtlety. It seems distopian but, in light of the filmmaker’s experiences – including the high-profile imprisonment of fellow director and collaborator Jafar Panahi – and the environment from which the film originates, it is a more sober rendering than a short description would suggest. The more Rasoulof heightens that soberness, intensifying the hyperreal quality of the environment, the more infernal the workings seem. The points at which sound and image drift apart, thus, are hardly noticed when they occur, so understated is the shift in tone to subjectivity. So too when the present moment brushed past a moment in the future (as when the sound of the vaunted airplane fills our ears), as two continents floating by one another in the sea.

The situation is similar to Panahi’s The Circle (2000), a film in which female characters are on the run from authorities but their individual infractions are shrouded in ambiguity. Here we know what how Noora’s intentions are challenging the system, and it is still just as mystifying. Her story and many of the details of what is going on with her have to emerge piece by piece, because people seem just as wary of being overheard as Rasoulof is of being censored and silenced. Their light treading is just as – if not more – telling than the things they say. Likewise the writer-director acheives a deeper level of communication through stillness, silence, and darkness, expresses the emotional reality of a state in which expression is smothered. Mundane activities are loaded with tremulous dread and horrible inevitability. When something bad does happen, it is diquietingly without drama – a fact of life, unimpedable.

Rakhshan Bani-Etemad and Mohsen Abdolvahab’s film Mainline (2006) is, on its most obvious level, a film about a social problem – drug addiction among Iran’s youth. At the same time, however, it’s a film that comes across as a rather conservative response to the social problems in general that face the country today, the implication being that things like drug addiction arise when the iron fists of theocracy and autocracy are relaxed, that more personal freedom leads to deterioration, that privilege and comfort erode moral fabric. Rasoulof’s film arises from an altogether separate view of things, a different climate under the same roof. In it people have been made so fearful of self-fulfillment that they rule only the perfunctory tasks and are in turn ruled by them. Surroundings are featureless, the only joys coming from the brief but frequent glints of human connection. The city is swarming, unrelenting, but eerily free of reflections and stimulae, like Brazil (1985) with SIM cards.

Still from 'Good Bye'There are no sounds but the periodic roar and rumble of an airplane’s takeoff (always an intimation, outside the line of sight), the jacked-up swirl of traffic noise, or people’s voices being absorbed by the deathly non-reverberant rooms. The sterility of the setting is created impeccably through silences, a benumbed pallet of gray and cerulean, and cold light that comes in to the image via windows to flood and flatten it. From the top of a hill, the speed and mass of the city is softened by distance, reduced to a boundless impression in thick murk, a subtle grinding at the recesses.

Even before we are shown outright, it feels that she is being traced throughout her day, that it would be impossible for her not to be. But the security measures seem without specificity, and so routine that we believe she may outwit them. The parallel between her wanting to keep the child and the director’s desire to see the film come to fruition is hard to miss. Like Noora, he wants his issue to be born into a sort of freedom that he does not know at the present time, a carrier of his grief and repression that will find its rendering in a foreign land. In this sense it is his imagined goodbye note to Iran. He is not dissimilar to his heroine, who has already fought and made a difference in her country, and is now being blocked from attaining the most basic human rights. The state will try as it might to stop him, but the fact that we can see his films shows that it has not gotten the final word.

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