FILM MAY 6, 2009
The Song of Sparrows
Along with other distinctions, Goodbye Solo is the first Iranian film made in North Carolina. Ramin Bahrani, the director and co-author, was born in Winston-Salem in 1975 to Iranian parents, grew up there, and after taking a degree at Columbia University went to Iran for three years. There he began his film work. Back in New York, he made Man Push Cart, unseen by me, and Chop Shop, most gratefully seen by me. In Chop Shop Bahrani traced delicacy amid grossness--the struggle for selfhood in a boy caught in a world of clanking auto repair and thievery. For his third feature, Bahrani returned to what we can with a straight face call his hometown. There, with Bahareh Azimi, who collaborated on the script for his last film, he made Goodbye Solo.
The film can be called Iranian because it virtually asks for it. Iran makes many kinds of films, but in the United States and some other countries the Iranian films that have registered and that remain precious--chiefly those of Abbas Kiarostami--are concerned with large matters of spirit, values in life, even in death. People in those films are in a profoundly contradictory state. On the one hand, they see every day as another day to be dealt with in ways that lie to hand; but they also see every day as a means to weigh the worth of the lives they are living. Hovering over them all is commonality--a linkage with everyone they meet, a sense that they are all bound in a destiny that, no matter what, can be borne in fellowship. Allow for some exceptions, and we can say that, whatever their station, they live both seriously and humbly.
Kiarostami is no tractarian: he is an artist who has fashioned a distinctive style, without arrant virtuosity. He uses heterodox simplification that asks for mature simplicity from us. Time as a presence, quiet, heartbeats and pulses, are constants. We are convinced that these films deal with matters that would exist whether or not the camera was there but that the camera is there for our sake.
All these hallmarks have been adopted by Bahrani for his new film. His Chop Shop can be compared with the neo-realist films of postwar Italy. Goodbye Solo leaves that genre and aspires to Kiarostami's realm. In fact, Bahrani invites us to compare him with his master. He is not, or not yet, at that level, but his reference is not presumptuous.
The reference is patent. The core of Goodbye Solo is openly adapted from Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry. In the earlier film, a man drives around Tehran trying to find someone who will assist him in suicide, a drive that is a voyage of discovery. Right at the start of Goodbye Solo, an elderly man, just arrived in Winston-Salem, makes a suicide deal with his thirtyish taxi driver. The passenger, William, gives the driver, Solo, a one-hundred-dollar deposit on a thousand-dollar fee. In two weeks Solo will drive him up to the top of Blowing Rock in the Blue Ridge Mountains nearby. The purpose of the trip doesn't have to be specified. The place has its reputation.
William never says why he wants to wait two weeks--in a local motel--though we observe a good deal and can infer much. Those two weeks are like a gift to Solo, who sets out to change William's mind. Incidents are plentiful, but the realities of the film are just these two characters, with Solo more interested in William than the reverse.
William, in his seventies, is lean, hard-bitten, a man who has seen a lot and says little, who apparently wants to spend the next two weeks in thought and small actions that will confirm his decision. Solo is Senegalese, buoyant, ambitious, lately married, with a pregnant wife and a teenage stepdaughter. He enjoys, almost gobbles, life. As part of his urge to move on and up, he has an ambition to become a flight attendant: he even takes an exam during those two weeks. But his prepossessing thought is to change William's mind. Insofar as William permits, Solo accompanies him to bars and pool halls. He even persuades William to come home with him and meet his family. Indeed, one of Bahrani's finest touches is the meeting of the dour William with Solo's wife and daughter, avatars of life both, whom William seems to recognize as such at the same time that we know they are having no effect on him.
Goodbye Solo has no music. This means that, even more than usual, the film relies on its actors for everything we feel. After a bow to Bahrani for setting the high intent of his concept, we can recognize how thoroughly he depends on the two principal actors. Of course, we have also to salute his perception in choosing them: this is always, or should be, part of the director's vocation, but it is not often handled as well as here. William is played by Red West, who has appeared in a number of films and television series but who is, we are told, best known as the bodyguard and close friend of Elvis Presley. It isn't quite clear how this occupation prepared him for his role, except that West must have seen and seen through a good deal of flimflam in his life, which gave him the ability--the wish--to be taciturn, grim, settled. Souleymane Sy Savane, who is Solo, has worked as a model in Paris and indeed as a flight attendant. Though he has been on African television, this is his feature debut. He makes Solo ebullient without being aggressive. Life hums in him. He is not unshakably cheery: there are some raspy bits with a drug dealer he knows. But every cell in his body seems eager for William's reversal. And there is a paradox: Solo seems to understand how a man could come to William's decision, but not how he could act on it.
Bahrani is too gifted to let his film become a set of discussions. We move like fascinated companions through those two weeks full of incidents, trifles, small mysteries, dailiness. William--a point notable these days--smokes a great deal. He goes to the movies a lot (and there is a hint that he is somehow connected with a youthful ticket-seller who doesn't seem to know him). The overall effect of Goodbye Solo is of living through a drama of huge subjects, articulated in the vernacular. Then, in a manner that is both expected and surprising, the end of the film confirms the need for the film.
About Bahrani's directing as such, I note only one detail. He has found a novel way to shoot interior scenes in a car, with the driver close and the passenger on the other side in the back. But bother the details. Overall, in spirit and being, he connects with his Iranian legacy because, even at his relatively young age, his work seems to fit a comment that the critic Gilberto Perez wrote about Kiarostami: "Kiarostami believes in beauty as he believes in truth, not as a conclusion but as an undertaking." Modestly yet deeply, Goodbye Solo moves the undertaking forward.
Coincidentally, here is an Iranian film that actually comes from Iran, but it is not affined to the Kiarostami genre. The writer-director Majid Majidi has done work on grave subjects, but his latest, The Song of Sparrows, is folk comedy. It has much of the usual fraternal feeling of Iran's films, but its story could, with relatively minor adjustments, be set in another country.
This is to the good. It is somehow congenial to feel that we are watching a tale that could have been told elsewhere. Accidents do happen anyplace--no visa necessary--and it is a series of accidents that spins the story here. A fortyish man named Karim is a farm hand on an ostrich farm near Tehran. (Elsewhere it wouldn't be ostriches.) By accident he lets one of the ostriches escape, and he is fired. By accident his treasured daughter breaks her hearing aid. Karim motorcycles into Tehran to replace the hearing aid, and, learning that he is very short of the price, finds himself pressed by accident into service as a motorbike taxi: while he sits parked for a moment in a busy street, a man climbs on to the backseat and gives him an address. (Evidently this sort of taxi is common there.) Karim seizes the new chance.
Other accidents follow, including the happy one that concludes matters. By and large, the film makes the most of the fact that people--particularly poor people--have little control over the important things that happen to them. Karim is of course a devout Muslim and eventually is reminded that his life is being carried on under invisible supervision. Yet his troubles with his little son, his various entanglements in the big city, pester him along the way--in empathically amusing style.
Karim is played by Reza Naji, who is perfectly cast. Naji has the kind of face that is distinguished by a lack of distinction: he is Everyman. But, first, that doesn't mean uninteresting, and, second, it helps the folkloric quality of the story. The most sophisticated element in this film is Majidi's camera work, which is full of agile traveling shots and even a few helicopter shots, all far from the workaday shooting that might have served for this unsophisticated story.
The title is puzzling. One brief episode concerns a sparrow, much like the sparrow bit in the recent Russian film 12, but it has little to do with Karim. It has even less to do with his figurative song in this film, which is a song of acceptance, of forbearance, of patience with the divinity that is shaping his end.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic of The New Republic.
By Stanley Kauffmann