Monday, March 30, 2009

Goodbye Solo

Scrapping the determinism that kept his first two features from moving beyond their neo-realist models, with Goodbye Solo, Ramin Bahrani gives his characters at last some room to breathe. If in Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, humans are imagined as little more than the product of their environment and all their efforts to better themselves are preordained to failure (as in La Terra Trema, but without that film’s expansive sense of tragedy), then in the current project, the filmmaker refrains from stacking his deck against his well-meaning characters, giving them considerable freedom of action, even when that freedom means choosing to commit suicide.

Relating, in low-key, elliptical fashion, the unlikely and tentative friendship between a Senegalese cab driver and an older white man who seems to be methodically plotting to bring his life to an end, Bahrani’s film gets by largely on personality, the element most conspicuously absent from his earlier works. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with a conception of character that remains intentionally flat – witness the success of such an approach in Goodbye Solo’s clearest model, Taste of Cherry – especially when motivated, as it is in Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, by an understanding of the ways in which tough situations reduce people to little more than the sum of their circumstances, in Bahrani’s previous films this approach tends to impart a certain redundancy to the material, a sense of treading familiar ground without the means to push any further.

But the trade-off in the earlier films is that while character is slighted, the environments come to vivid life. And while the North Carolina streets that form the setting of the current film don’t give off as potent a sense of place as the maze of auto body shops and junk heaps that form Queens’ Willets Point in Chop Shop, the difference is more than made up by the pairing of generous, garrulous Solo (SoulĂ©ymane Sy SavanĂ©) and his “preferred client”, quiet, surly William (Red West). As the two zip through the streets in the former’s cab or shack up together at a motel when Solo gets kicked out of the house by his wife, they reach a tenuous understanding, the cabbie looking out for the older man, penetrating his reserve to a small degree, while William reluctantly helps the other man with his studies and befriends his young step-daughter.

Bahrani doesn’t push things too far here and it’s clear that while circumstance might bring two very different people together, might allow them to reap small benefit from each other’s presence, a lasting relationship is pretty well an impossibility, especially given the opposite directions in which the two men are striving: Solo determined to better himself by landing a job as a flight attendant and William set on throwing himself off Blowing Rock cliff, in thrall to some unnamed sorrow. Actually, the nature of this sorrow is hinted at in a series of scenes that represent the film’s one real misstep – William’s frequent trips to the movie theater are revealed as a chance to talk to the ticket taker, who is most likely his grandson and his only familial connection – an attempt to specify the nature of the older man’s circumstances, where the filmmaker would have been better off following Kiarostami’s example and leaving some things left unsaid. But for the most part he does just that. Combining the sharp observations and skillful elisions of his earlier features with a newfound interest in character, the young director has crafted his first successful film, one that finds two wholly credible human beings struggling with, but not subdued by, a set of specifically dictated circumstances. The men may take opposing actions when faced with their separate trials, but, in Bahrani's latest effort, their choices are, at last, their own.

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