BEIRUT: “If one feels a foreigner in one’s own land,” a beautiful woman remarks, “it’s better to leave and feel a foreigner in a foreign land.”
There is a problem with work made by politically engaged artists. As soon as the public knows something about his or her biography, they’re likely to read the work for its political content rather than the quality of its aesthetics.
Among Iranian filmmakers, there are artists known for the politics of the stories they tell. The most-renowned of these is Jafar Panahi, whose latest work, “Closed Curtain,” is now screening at the Berlinale despite the 20-year ban he received from the Iranian state in 2010 and reports of his languishing in semi-detention.
Then there are those who continue to live in Iran but whose work doesn’t directly engage with politics – Abbas Kiarostami, for instance, and, among the younger generation of filmmakers, Asghar Farhadi.
Falling between the twin stools of aesthetics and politics is writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof. Deeply engaged with the political and cultural life in revolutionary Iran – the 40-year-old was detained with Panahi in 2009 but later released – his films have become increasingly informed by contemporary developments while retaining a high level of cinematographic and narrative craftsmanship.
This was evident of “The White Meadows,” his 2009 allegory about the grief of confinement set alongside a salt lake. It is equally true of “Good-bye,” his 2011 feature, which abjures beautifully framed rural metaphor in favor of contemporary urban realism.
At the heart of “Good-bye,” and residing at the center of virtually every scene, is Noora (Leyla Zareh). As the film opens, she goes about a daily routine whose purpose is not entirely clear. It gradually emerges that she is in the midst of the strenuous legal and bureaucratic labor required to secure an exit permit.
This mundane-sounding task is complicated by the fact that her absent husband, a journalist, has fallen out with the security apparatus of the Pasdaran. A civil rights lawyer, she too has been “listed” for having defended Iranian citizens charged with sedition.
Complicating her predicament is her absent husband’s ambivalence about leaving Iran, and the ambiguity of her own feelings about becoming pregnant.
More alluring than the plot details are the film’s stern aesthetics. The two things immediately striking about Zareh’s character, long before you know anything about her situation, are the serious reserve of her mien and her aloneness – penned-in by the stationary framing and washed-out palette of cinematographer Arastoo Givi.
Noora’s movements from her flat to the office of Lutfi, who is arranging her exit, and to her clinic are shrouded in silence, sometimes punctuated by one-sided mobile telephone conversations.
Through this deadening stasis precipitates a motif of some things being given away while others slip away of their own accord.
Waiting to see Lutfi, Noora quietly folds a piece of paper around a wad of money and gives it to his hard-nosed secretary. On her last visit, she drops in her wedding band as well, only to have the woman return it to her.
Returning home, Noora finds that the tank containing the couple’s pet turtle is leaking. Her ongoing, silent conundrum about what to do with the reptile nicely embodies the nagging domestic concerns that blithely ignore her growing desperation.
In an afterimage so fragile that describing it makes it seem hackneyed, the leaking tank weirdly anticipates certain tests she must undergo – requiring the draining of some amniotic fluid – while trying to decide what to do about her pregnancy.
As the date of her planned departure approaches, Noora’s flat is inspected by agents from the Pasdaran. The men’s behavior is abrasive but polite. The experience is made all the more harrowing for the fact that the inspection is mostly off-frame, the camera relentlessly focused on an immobile woman, expressionless but ringing with emotion.
“Good-bye” has its Beirut premiere Thursday evening at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil, the opening film of the Cinema Mondial Tour. This program is comprised of feature films that have got financial support from the Hubert Bals Fund, the film development body of the Rotterdam International Film Festival (IFFR), and feature-length documentaries financed by IDFA, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.
It’s a distinguished lineup favoring works from the global south rather than Holland.
For those with an interest in the work of this region, the program includes Diana El Jeiroudi’s well-received 2008 doc “Dolls – A Woman from Damascus,” a socio-economic and cultural profile of Fulla, Syria’s answer to the Barbie doll.
Also on tap is “Qarantina” (2010), the sophomore feature of Iraqi writer-director Oday Rasheed. Set within the gated courtyard of a dilapidated Baghdad house in post-Baath Baghdad, the film tells the story of a broken family existing under the rule of an incestuous patriarch, a situation accentuated by the arrival of the contract killer who’s taken a room in the house.
The balance of the program is occupied by critically lauded works from Chile, China, Serbia and South Africa.
The themes taken up in “Good-bye” reiterate those found in the work of several well-regarded Iranian filmmakers over the last few years .
It most-closely recalls the plot of Farhadi’s “A Separation” (2011), which also revolves around a woman’s desperate need to leave Iran and her husband’s hesitation to do so – though his desire to remain is apolitical and her reasons for needing to leave are left carefully unspoken.
Though more explicitly political in its narrative thrust than “A Separation,” Rasoulof’s film pursues a rigorous visual aesthetic of sustained, superbly framed shots that will satisfy any lover of art-house cinema. For those impatient with this kind of work, Leyla Zareh’s masterfully controlled depiction of Noora’s largely unspoken, unremitting, anguish is compelling in its authenticity.
The Cinema Mondial opens at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Thursday evening with a screening of Mohammad Rasoulof’s “Good-bye” and continues at 8 p.m. nightly through Feb. 20. All films are in their original language with English subtitles.