Nepali Times
Critical Cinema
The Real Deal


Ramin Bahrani's chronicles of the working poor carve out a specifically American chapter in the Realist tradition very once in a rare while, you are captured by an action on screen that freezes you in your tracks. It isn't because what you see is spectacular; instead, it is its wholly mundane quality that grabs you. Not some actor striking a pose, but a simple act that rings so authentic in its commonplaceness you recognise it to be from the real world. In this genuine human moment, one recalls the quality of artifice that marks most of cinema. It is this sensibility, sometimes labeled 'realist', which marks the films of Ramin Bahrani.

The Realist tradition, with its roots in the Neo-realist films of post-war Italian cinema such as Vittorio de Sica's The Bicycle Thief, is defined by its attention to the working poor. The Bicycle Thief, for instance, captures the complicated relationship we have with labour, tied as it is to our survival and our notions of personal dignity and worth. Ramin proves he is heir to this tradition with a body of work in a contemporary American setting that matches the pathos of any Italian Neo-realist entry.

In the hard-scrabble life of its extremely young working protagonist, Bahrani's Chop Shop (2007) is a humanist portrait of living and working on the margins of the economy. Ale is a character whose plight reaches Dickensonian proportions. Neither parents nor school play a role in his life, and he has a taskmaster (albeit a sympathetic one) who puts him to work for a meagre wage. He has a dingy room to bed down in at the back of the mechanic shop where he toils. Yet there is no romanticism or melodrama in Ale's condition. He is self-reliant and applies himself with a gritty determination that could be described as American, with that tantalising dream stubbornly out of his reach as he struggles for a modicum of security for himself and his sister. The film's naturalism and resonant humanity belies
the assiduous execution of Bahrani's craft.

In Bahrani's most recent work, Goodbye Solo (2009), it is difficult not to be reminded of Abbas Kiarostami, Bahrani's predecessor and Iranian counterpart in the Realist tradition. It opens in the inside of a taxi cab with a gregarious driver trying to make conversation with his reticent, hostile passenger. In doing so, it evokes Kiarostami's Ten, with its candid divorcee interrogating her passengers, or perhaps more directly, Taste of Cherry. Like Taste of Cherry, one character seeks his own death - in Goodbye Solo it is William, a white, Southern, elderly grouse who commissions Senegalese Solo to drive him to Blowing Rock. Solo realises that this is a trip of no return, with his passenger likely to jump to his death at his destination. And so in the few days they spend together, Solo contrives to draw his passenger into the social fabric of his world, hoping to restore William's connection with humanity. Goodbye Solo rises above its bleak premise partly due to a performance infused with warmth and humour by its lead, Souleymane Sy Savane, whose Franco-African lilt and American vernacularisms are completely charming. You root for him as he thaws William's hostility, your own identification with the characters increasing exponentially.

Goodbye Solo also marks an evolution for this supremely talented filmmaker. Bahrani branches out from the documentary-inflected realism of his previous work towards narrative and story. Alongside the story of affirming life in the face of hardship and the developing dynamic between the protagonists, complex themes of fatherhood emerge. Solo must confront his own vacillation towards his family and his unrealised dreams of a better life. In Bahrani's chronicles of those living at the margins of American existence, art and life could not be better served.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)