A young female lawyer barred from practicing decides to leave Iran no matter what the cost in writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof’s slow-burning realist drama “Goodbye.” Winner of director kudos in the Cannes fest’s Un Certain Regard section, the brave but challenging pic offers a quietly devastating critique of contempo Iran that many will read as a personal response to Rasoulof’s recent legal troubles with the government. While unlikely to screen on home turf under the current regime, fest and niche arthouse play can be expected in most other territories.
As reported in Variety, Rasoulof and fellow helmer and frequent collaborator Jafar Panahi were arrested in the summer of 2009, and later convicted of filming without permission. While Panahi has been prohibited from making a movie for 20 years, Rasoulof received state permission to direct a new feature. Although both were sentenced to prison, the sentence has yet to be executed. While their cases are being appealed, they are banned from leaving the country, but can come and go freely from their homes.
Unlike Rasoulof’s two previous features, “Iron Island” and “White Meadows,” both sharp-edged allegories set in unspecified time periods in scenic locales far from an urban center, “Goodbye” unfolds in the here-and-now of a cold, unsmiling Tehran where despair and anxiety reign, newspapers are closed down and activists executed. Here, narrative information is meted out in bits and pieces, keeping viewers as off-balance as the beleaguered central character — the director’s first time featuring a female protagonist — and forcing them to pay close attention.
Unable to work at her profession for reasons left unspecified, Noora (Leyla Zareh, terrific) spends her days making the rounds of various government and medical bureaucracies, her desire for quick action and decisive information continually frustrated, often because she is a woman alone. At night she’s so exhausted that she can barely manage to complete the piecework she has taken on in order to earn some money.
Gradually, it becomes clear that her journalist husband has fled some imminent crackdown by the state. Noora, meanwhile, has secretly contracted with a black market agency to obtain visas so they might leave the country. Having followed the agency’s advice to become pregnant, she now faces further agonizing decisions when blood tests reveal she is carrying a Down syndrome child.
One of Rasoulof’s greatest achievements is to convey the utter isolation and powerlessness Noora feels. Forced to lie about her husband’s whereabouts and her intentions, unable to ask for help, she’s trapped in an increasingly fraught nightmare where every knock on the door might mean the loss of liberty, or worse.
One of the most chilling sequences shows Noora trapped in her building’s elevator with two rough looking men from the dreaded secret police. As they rifle through her apartment, her unsuspecting mother prepares tea and a bowl of fruit, a sign of traditional Iranian hospitality.
Lensed sans warm tones in tightly framed close-up, the claustrophobic visuals stress Noora’s separation from any succor and reinforce a “no exit” feel, as does the sophisticated and increasingly ominous sound design. Without being overly insistent, the fine lensing is also sensitive to the energy-sapping realities of being female in today’s Iran.