Tuesday, March 20, 2012

127. Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof’s “Bé omid é didar/See you later” (Good bye) (2011): A courageous film capturing terror on screen without a scream being heard

The overall impact of viewing the Iranian film Goodbye reminds you of another unrelated film from USA. Way back in 1964, Hollywood produced a film called The Pawnbroker. It was directed by the late Sidney Lumet. Anyone who has seen that film will not forget actor Rod Steiger’s scream at the end of the film—a scream so anguished that no sound emanated from his vocal chords. A silent scream is an oxymoron but that single enigmatic scene propelled the career of Steiger and the performance won him a Silver Bear for Acting at the Berlin Film Festival. And Steiger later claimed that he borrowed the idea after seeing the anguish of the male subject’s skyward cry at the right extreme of the famous and massive Pablo Picasso painting Guernica.

Good bye is also about anguish—the silent suffering of the ordinary Iranian, intolerance of individual and artistic freedom of expression and the insidious backlash against any who dare to protest against current levels of social, political, and religious freedom in that country. There is not a word of direct criticism of the State in the film Good bye—yet the film is a bold silent scream of protest against everything that is intolerable in the country. It is an anguish one can relate with any society surviving under a dictatorship or extreme religious fundamentalism. The ability of director Mohammad Rasoulof to depict the Kafkaesque life of the sensitive, educated Iranian with remarkable restraint without resorting to depicting a major show of on-screen violence makes this work standout among other movies made over the years etching out similar feelings.

The year 2011 produced two amazing and yet realistic Iranian films: A Separation and Good bye. The former film was officially allowed by Iran to compete at the Oscars and won the Best Foreign Film Oscar and even got nominated for its screenplay as well. Earlier at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival, it had swept three of the four major awards: best film, best actor and best actress. The latter film, Good bye, could never get Iran’s official blessing—in fact in December 2010, an Iranian court sentenced its director Mohammad Rasoulof along with fellow prominent director Jafar Panahi, to an year (or was it six?) in jail and barred him from making films for 20 years. (The two were released on bail pending an appeal but are banned from travelling abroad.) In spite of this official prosecution of the director, the film Goodbye was smuggled out of Iran and entered in the 2011 Cannes film festival in the Un certain regard section. It eventually went on to win the award for best direction in that section.

Can we compare and contrast the two Iranian films? In A Separation, the mother of a girl child wants to leave Iran and live abroad for the sake of the future of her daughter. The reason for this decision is asked by the magistrate to the mother and there is no direct answer to the question—only body language gives the viewer some clues of the unspoken answer. In Goodbye, the film is about a lady lawyer, Noura (played by Leyla Zareh), married to a photo-journalist. She has been disbarred from legal practice for having taken part in a civil rights protest. Her husband has been sent off to a desert for showing his dissent. The well-educated lady is desperate to leave the country. Both films exhibit the frustration of the Iranian in Iran, especially of women. Yet the director of the former film is allowed to travel to Hollywood to receive the Oscar, while the other lives in Iran with the Damocles sword of a jail term dangling above him.

As the film progresses, we learn from pieces of furtive conversation that a former client of the lady lawyer Noura (apparently who Noura could not defend because she had been disbarred) has been hanged. Goodbye (the more accurate translation of the title would be ‘See you later’) doesn’t criticize the state directly. The events speak for themselves. The disbarred lawyer wants to immigrate to an unnamed country; her justification is “if you feel like a foreigner in your own land, it’s better to be a foreigner abroad.” Any intelligent viewer can see certain parallels between Noura of  this film and the Nobel Peace Prize winning Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi who also worked for human rights of Iranians in Iran only to find her Nobel Prize medal and diploma has been confiscated from her locker (according to Ebadi’s page on Wikipedia). In Iran, there are unofficial agents who facilitate this underhand immigration as the one Noura plans in this film. The outcome at the end of the film Goodbye makes the film worth your while as the viewer not just savours a good realistic story but also appreciates the string of silent screams visually captured by the director and a top-notch team comprising a talented and yet unknown crew of cinematographer Arastoo Givi and sound editor Hussein Mahdavi.

The “silent scream” pervades the film as you watch Noura, wearing a ‘chador’, a mandatory cloak for women in public places, busy removing her nail polish in an all-women public transport at night. The moral police never confronts Noura in the film, but director Mohammad Rasoulof’s screenplay captures the fear of Noura and her cleverness to avoid such a confrontation. Equally important for the viewers to note is the ability of the director and cinematographer to capture the mood of Noura’s co-passengers as she is busy removing her nail polish in public. They all know why she is doing it and seem to silently approve the non-confrontational plan. The viewer is transported into a world of documentary cinema while you are actually watching fiction.  The fact that Noura represents the upper middle class section of Iranian society is subtly stated but not made obvious throughout the film.

The “silent scream” pervades the film as Noura’s apartment is visited by officials checking if she owns a satellite connection to her TV. The lawyer Noura knows she could get into trouble if she denies the fact. She answers that she has one such connection but that it does not work. The officials confiscate it. What the director’s clever screenplay insinuates is that the eyes and ears of the state is possibly snooping into your homes, to figure out that you have a facility to access satellite TV, working or not working.

Another “silent scream” of the film is the sudden unexplained disappearance of a pet turtle that seemed to have suddenly climbed out of its glass enclosure and disappeared within the closed apartment. Again the screenplay silently insinuates the long arm of the Big Brother.

The lone direct confrontation that Noura faces is the sequence of plainclothesmen who question her on her husband in a lift following which they search her apartment. It is interesting to see the elderly family member serve the unwelcome guests tea and snacks as they rummage the apartment for evidence against Noura and her husband. The film has not a single sequence of physical violence; yet the tension and terror fill each frame. Noura's wistful gaze towards the Teheran international airport from her apartment’s terrace conveys her feelings to ultimately flee the country. These are the powerful understatements that make Good bye worth watching.

After the movie ends the viewer could say that similar tales were made by directors like Costa-Gavras and several East European directors. What sets Good bye apart is the subtle weaving of small encounters that add up to more than their sum—especially when you notice the entire film revolves around the expertise of Rasoulof and a very unheralded crew of local talent. And Leyla Zareh as Noura is convincing to the core, bringing out the emotions of a mother-to-be wondering if she ought to abort under the unusual circumstances.

It is one thing to make a film like this in a free world and another to make this film with such admirable camerawork, art direction, sound mixing, and screenplay writing in Iran itself when Rasoulof is being asked not to make films.  The brave film presents Iran today that a casual visitor to that country cannot glimpse but merely suspect of the existence of the daily terror that the braver sections of society face. Possibly great cinema is always spurred on by state persecution.

P.S. Good bye ranks as one of 10 best films of 2011 for the author. Asghar Farhadi's A Separation was reviewed earlier on this blog.