An Undertaking: The unexpected beauty of 'Goodbye Solo'

It is most unusual for me that a movie lingers on, in my thoughts, emotions and musings, as “Goodbye Solo” did, into the second and third day. Clearly, its director, Ramin Bahrani, an Iranian-American who grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C., seems destined to become an important new filmmaker. His earlier two indie films, “Man Push Cart” and “Chop Shop,” garnered some attention. But “Goodbye Solo” earned him unusual praise. Roger Ebert speculates that it might become a classic and says, “it is as pure as something by John Ford.” A. O. Scott, in The New York Times, alludes to its “grace,” noting, “I can’t think of anything else to call the quality of exquisite attention, wry humor and wide awake intelligence that informs every frame of this almost perfect film.”

The movie is about the promise and despair of life. It deals with the human desire to help those in need--and the equal desire, in some, not to be helped. It reminds us that we live in a sad yet beautiful world. The story deals with Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane) a gregarious and charming Sengalese cab driver in Winston-Salem, and an elderly man who wants Solo to drive him to Blowing Rock National Park so that he can commit suicide.

Watching the film I was reminded of an unusual homily preached by my friend Jan van Kilsdonk S.J., who was the pastor for university students in Amsterdam. Van Kilsdonk was presiding over a memorial service for a young man who committed suicide. He cited the line: “The almond blossoms no longer delight or smell sweet to me.” Van Kilsdonk neither justified nor approved of the suicide of the young Dutch man. He simply wanted us to try to fathom better the human condition, to help us understand, perhaps, the world of lonely, haunted humans.

In the film, Solo first picks up William, the elderly man, to take him to a movie theater. William gives him an $100 advance to book a one-way trip to Blowing Rock in two weeks time. William is brilliantly played by 72-year-old Red West, a character actor who was also a schoolmate of Elvis Presley, a professional boxer and, then, Presley’s bodyguard and chauffeur. At one point, West broke the foot of Presley’s cousin who was smuggling narcotics to the singer and threatened to do more, if he ever tried to bring narcotics to Presley again. Surely, West saw closely, in his friend and confidante, the possibility of human destruction and loss of zest for life. With a craggy face and rheumy eyes, West portrays a life totally lived out. West and Savane, the two principals, are brilliantly cast and serve as perfect foils for each other.

Solo is funny, gregarious and full of ambition (he wants to become a flight attendant). Generous and compassionate, he tries to pull William back from the brink. He arranges to drive him to his almost daily excursions to a movie theater, where William seems fascinated by a young movie teller who, it seems, might be his grandson. He washes William’s laundry and brings William to his own house to meet his pregnant wife and young step-daughter, Alex. At one point, he moves in with William in his motel. William seems moved by his companion’s good spirits: he goes with Solo to a bar to play pool and develops a fondness for Solo’s stepdaughter. Solo cajoles William to help him study for his examination to become a flight attendant.

Like Solo, we hope that William might find a sense of purpose. Even Solo, brimming with a passion for life and rebelling against the possibility of William’s impending suicide, can occasionally understand the lonely, haunted man. Toward the end of the movie, as Solo prepares to drive William to Blowing Rock, he looks over a notebook William kept and can ascertain that, indeed, he was engaged with Solo in his study and with his stepdaughter Alex—but not enough, once again, to choose life. Reluctantly, Solo has to accept defeat and, in the end, honors William’s quiet determination to terminate his life.

Visually, the film brilliantly conveys riding in a taxi, the weather-beaten neighborhoods of Winston-Salem and the daily struggles of the working class people in the film. Bahrani seems to be taken with outsider immigrants trying to fit into America, surely with some resonance to his own experience growing up, as an outsider Iranian, in black and white Winston-Salem. At one point in his career, Bahrani went to Iran for three years where, among other things, he seems to have been influenced by the great Iranian film director, Abbas Kiarostami. Indeed, some elements of “Goodbye Solo” seem inspired by Kiarostami’s 1997 film, “Taste of Cherry.” But “Goodbye Solo” is neither a re-make nor a riff on it.

When I waxed enthusiastic to a friend about seeing this movie, she said: “How can you be so rapturous about a film about a suicide?” But suicide is not what the film is about. Nor does one come away from the film feeling depressed—just the opposite. The goodness of Solo and his infectious curiosity, the beauty of the mountains of North Carolina in the fall, the meaningfulness of being a father in a flawed and economically perilous world—all win in the end. I suspect the film still haunts me because it speaks deeply to the human condition. It asks me to step back and ask what life is for and to look around and inquire how others make meaning and find sense in life. Perhaps, what was once said of Kiarostami, can be said of Bahrani: He “believes in beauty as he believes in Truth, not as a conclusion but as an undertaking.” No Hollywood film has ever led me to consider how I might believe and try to live out the same thing. “Goodbye Solo” did.

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8 years 4 months ago
As I read on your review I sort of hoped that William might after all be saved from committing suicide. It saddened me to think that it was not to be so. But your positive outlook on the beauty of life lived by the taxi driver warms up my heart. Through your review I almost have a sense of seeing the film. The satisfaction which I have may be compared to the satisfaction I have after a good cup of filtered coffee and its aroma still in the mouth.
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