An air of resignation hangs prominently over Goodbye, a sense of despair so oppressive that it seems to invade the world its main character, Noora (Leylah Zareh), inhabits. There’s no joy to be found in the Iran depicted in the film, especially on a visual level, with cinematographer Arastoo Givi’s color palette dominated by drably industrial grays. Is it any wonder, then, that Noora—a recently disbarred human rights lawyer forced to separate from her husband, exiled to the desert of southern Iran as a result of his activities as a political journalist—is so desperate to flee Iran that she would go so far as to get pregnant as part of a complex scheme to do so once and for all?
Director Mohammad Rasoulof surely understands Noora’s sense of imprisonment on a deeply personal level. In 2010, he was arrested along with filmmaking compatriot Jafar Panahi and sentenced to six years in prison; he shot this film semi-clandestinely while waiting for the judgment on his appeal, just as Panahi did with This Is Not a Film. So, on the surface, one could certainly find parallels between Noora’s situation in Goodbye and Rasoulof’s own predicament. As with This Is Not a Film, however, Goodbye marks a noticeable shift in its maker’s filmmaking style. Gone is the allegorical richness and lustrous visual beauties of The White Meadows; in Goodbye, Rasoulof grounds his story in bleak realism and sometimes skirts didacticism in order to offer up a more direct indictment of the ruling Iranian regime.
That isn’t to say that Goodbye is lacking in expressive splendors of its own. There’s a scene early in the film in which Rasoulof, with the help of cinematographer Givi, suggests Noora’s growing affection for her unborn child simply with a baby photo on a wall and a beautifully placed ray of light in an otherwise unlit room—the same ray of light that streaks across Noora’s face, highlighting her eyes, as she lies in bed on her side. These images—among others—are repeated much later in the film in a different narrative context, suggesting more anguished emotional registers than before. Rasoulof also uses long takes throughout the film, mostly in that fixed-placement style that will be familiar to those who’ve seen his previous work, to suggest Noora’s entrapment. The strategy pays off especially well in one tense sequence in which two Iranian policemen search Noora’s home for undisclosed reasons, the threat dangling in the air of Noora’s mother coming home to such a scene at any minute. There’s no escape for anyone in that one unbroken shot.
Rasoulof’s skillful technique is placed in service of a slow-building but gradually involving examination of a woman under immense pressure: to her exiled husband, to her unborn child, and especially to herself. Noora is hardly what you would describe as a pushover; her previous vocation as a human rights lawyer suggests impassioned activist impulses that have been squelched by the Iranian government way before Rasoulof has picked up her story in media res. Goodbye, then, is a portrait of a free spirit battered but not yet completely broken; Zareh plays her with a poignantly steely vulnerability, expressed mostly through body language and pained facial expressions.
And through Rasoulof’s ruthless attention to the details of Noora’s fraught existence, we see glimpses of the repressive environment from which she so desires to flee. Noora, for instance, frequently hears from authorities that she needs her husband’s signature for just about everything she tries to do, whether it’s getting an abortion or just picking up his passport—a detail that offers a window into the patriarchy that still governs Iranian society. And, of course, there’s the aforementioned surprise search of Noora’s apartment; when she asks the two men what their reasons for their search are, they tell her that they’re not obligated to divulge that information.
“If one feels like a foreigner in one’s own country,” Noora says to a friend of her husband’s late in the film, “it’s best to leave it.” Though this line of dialogue could be accused of being a bit too on the nose, the sentiment is nevertheless backed up by the feeling the rest of the film masterfully evokes: that of a woman who no longer feels comfortable in her own country. There may not be much hope to be found in Goodbye either visually or narratively, but Rasoulof’s latest film still manages to carry the heartening pulse of outrage—the filmmaker’s own outrage at all that is unjust in the society in which he continues to live. Even as it has forced him to shift the way he expresses his anger, house arrest, it seems, has not dimmed that anger one iota.