Screens at CIFF: 10/11 & 10/13 & 10/15
World premiere: 14 May, 2011, Cannes Film Festival

There have been many films about the confounded lot of women in contemporary Iran (and given how incredibly shitty that lot seems to be, it's not the sort of thing I feel compelled to complain about), and on that front, Goodbye is not a tremendously special movie. Or so it seems, comfortably ensconced in my white American maledom, but the Iranian government would probably disagree with me, given the amount of energy it put into smothering the film before it was able to find its way into more, let us say, woman-friendly climes. And Lord knows that director Mohammad Rasoulof would disagree with me in very pointed language, given that for his crimes of "assembly, collusion, and propagandizing against the regime", i.e. producing this film and the 2009 The White Meadows, he has been sentenced to a six-year prison sentence and a 20-year ban from making movies. Which doesn't necessarily demonstrate that the film has any particular aesthetic originality, but self-evidently argues that it's more than just your common or garden-variety social issues drama.

The film concerns a Tehran lawyer named Noora (Leyla Zareh), who desperately wants to leave Iran. We never learn why; there is a brief aside to the effect that her never-seen husband, out of the city for reasons that are never explained in a straightforward way, writes a politically-sensitive blog, and Noora herself has recently had her license to practice law taken away thanks to her involvement in civil rights cases. If there is a specific suspicion that hangs over her, it is never spoken, and of course it's not ultimately important. What matters, ultimately, is the flight: the various hurdles that stand between the woman and her escape, and her attempt to overcome them in what is, at heart, a thriller, though one in which so many petty annoyances, each laced with very real danger, crop up to block Noora's momentum, that the end result can never be called exciting - though it is frequently terrifying.

Rasoulof spoon-feeds us nothing: we have to assemble the movie's plot from pieces that are given to us erratically. A man whose profession is smuggling people out of the country has suggested that if Noora can become pregnant and give birth while she is out of country at a conference he has arranged for her to speak at. By the time the film begins, she has grown concerned that there is a problem with this pregnancy (the first shot is of her disembodied arm, as a faceless nurse draw blood for a test), and is seriously considering whether, if this is the only way to get out of Iran, she still wants to take such an extreme measure.

The hoops that Noora must jump through, and the cloud of danger she always seems to live with, are simultaneously absurd and frightening in the grandest tradition of a paranoia thriller - one scene in which she stands with uncomfortably obvious alertness as two policemen confiscate her digital satellite box, and despite the whole thing taking place in an exaggeratedly detailed static single take, it's as hair-raising as you could like - and made considerably worse on account of her sex: events that would already be difficult to handle are raised to Sisyphean levels given that she requires her absent husband's approval for virtually every minor task, from retrieving their apartment security deposit to arranging for the blood test - not any kind of surgery, but just the damn blood test - to see if her unborn child is healthy.

Rasoulof, who experienced much of the same Kafkaesque bureaucratic frustration that his heroine did, depicts all of this with a burning specificity: the tiny grievances that pile up, and the tenuous connects that Noora must rely on despite the obvious motivation for every single one of her allies to sell her out, and the most silent gestures of where characters stand and how they move, speak to an exhaustive, first-hand experience with the process involved, though of course Rasoulof didn't have the extra misery of being female in a heavily patriarchal society. No matter. Goodbye - a much more definite and arguably better title than the right translation of the Persian, roughly "Till I See You Again" - is a fairly definitive argument in which gender is an important item among many things wrong with Iranian society.

Perhaps as a side-effect of the film's clandestine shooting schedule, Rasoulof is obliged to rely on an extremely limited toolbox: almost nothing but long takes, frequently set up so that the frame is equivalent to a room (accident or no, this tends to turn every space Noora occupies into a glass cage - metaphorically underlined by the turtle in a leaky aquarium she keeps in her apartment, and though the metaphor sticks well, it's a little bit on the obvious side for my taste, particularly when it vanishes without a trace). There's a technique that is staggering the first time we see it, and which quickly looses currency, in which Rasoulof focuses on some unprepossessing object, while we hear activity offscreen elliptically driving the plot forward. It's certainly economical, and in some cases - particularly the final shot - it increases our own sense of helplessness to match Noora's. It's also a bit too self-consciously "art film", but better too-fussy imagery than not fussy enough.

Anyway, it doesn't really matter. This is a true note from underground, a desperate scrawl about the injustices of a broken society from a man buried inside. Its shortcomings as a movie being what they are, this is still absolutely essential viewing, not just for its merits as a paranoid thriller but out of respect to the man who gave up his freedom to tell this story.