By Eric Kohn | Indiewire May 17, 2011 at 8:12AM
With his fifth feature, "Goodbye," jailed Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof delivers a suspenseful and moving portrait of modern censorship in the country that has currently placed him in its governmental crosshairs. Along with fellow Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, Rasoulof has been sentenced to six years for his speaking his mind. "Goodbye" doesn't literally tell his story, but it clearly espouses his views, focusing on the intense experience of a young woman desperate to find her ticket to freedom and hitting wall after wall.
Noura (Leyla Zareh) is a Tehran-based lawyer whose license has been suspended while her muckraking journalist husband eludes authorities by escaping to the south. She lives a dry, solitary life in her cramped apartment, dreaming up potential exit strategies. Early in the movie, she concocts a scheme for using her pregnancy to leave the country. Well-spoken and educated, she comes across more as bold strategist than dreamer, the ideal heroine for this type of frantic tale.
As Noura ponders the risks at hand, Rasoulof adopts the pensive techniques typically associated with contemporary Iranian cinema, dwelling in long, ponderous takes that draw out the gravitas of each scene. But while the pace of "Goodbye" is sometimes glacial, it never loses a sense of immediacy. The first shot displays a needle drawing blood during one of Noura's doctor visits to discuss her pregnancy, putting a visceral twist on the danger at hand. Later, Noura cleans the cage of her pet turtle and then leaves the frame as the camera stays in place, watching the fragile creature wander the edges of its enclosure in vain. The metaphor is an obvious one, but the same description applies to Noura's situation.
Over time, Rasoulof ramps up the stakes. A particularly tense moment arrives around the mid-point, when authorities show up at her apartment looking for her husband, trap her in an elevator and then proceed to rummage through her possessions. In the meantime, her oblivious mother arrives and begins to watch TV. Contrasting the horror of these invasive forces with utter mundanity, Rasoulof renders the daily suspense of living in a society plagued by repression with remarkable intimacy. It's no wonder that Iranian forces consider him a threat, but its citizens should view this movie's miraculous last-minute arrival at Cannes as a kind of dark blessing.
At its center, "Goodbye" contains a superbly understated performance, a woman determined to get her way despite virtually all odds leveled against her. Her constant look of resolve masks the prospects of failure lurking in every scene--she never smiles once. With its dreary progression, "Goodbye" occasionally loses track of its emotional thread, taking on the form of a narrative op-ed. However, Rasoulof regains his grasp on the material's thriller components with a powerful conclusion in which Noura finally puts her plan into action and deals with the consequences. Devastatingly cold in its sudden, matter-of-fact outcome, "Goodbye" asserts that no escape is ever final in a world designed to prevent it.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? The contemporary hook for "Goodbye" could help propel it to solid to U.S. recognition in the hands of a small distributor with VOD capabilities, such as IFC or Magnolia.
criticWIRE grade: A-