Taxi Driver

c sarrissolo Taxi DriverGoodbye Solo
Running time 91 minutes
Written by Bahareh Azimi and Ramin Bahrani
Directed by Ramin Bahrani
Starring Souléymane Sy Savané and Red West

Ramin Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo, from a screenplay by Bahareh Azimi and Mr. Bahrani, is the Iranian-American’s third feature film; Man Push Cart (2005) and Chop Shop (2007) are the others. Yet, whereas Cart was shot mainly in Manhattan and Chop in the Willets Point section of Queens, Solo is set in Winston-Salem, N.C., where the director was born in 1975 to Iranian parents who had emigrated to the U.S. some months earlier. After gaining his B.A. from Columbia, he went to Iran, where he made his student thesis film, Strangers (2000). He then returned to New York to shoot Cart, and he’s gone on to become one of this country’s most honored young directors.

Still, how American is he? And are his first three films harbingers of his absorption into the American cultural mainstream?

Perhaps, yet I cannot imagine Mr. Bahrani’s movies being on any major studio list of prospective releases. The worlds he depicts are too exotic, too lower class and too dramatically despondent.

At a time when American forces were engaged in Afghanistan and Pakistan after 9/11, Mr. Bahrani recalled Pakistani immigrants who operated pushcarts all over Manhattan. He conceived of a Pakistani pushcart vendor who lived in Brooklyn, and commuted every day to operate a pushcart in the shadows of the city’s skyscrapers. His fictional name was Ahmad and he was portrayed by a Brooklyn Pakistani pastry chef named Ahmad Razvi. Mr. Bahrani did not write much dialogue for Mr. Razvi, preferring to let him grow improvisationally into the part. The narrative is decidedly downbeat existentially, as if to cast some doubt on the veracity of the American dream.

Chop Shop ends on a somewhat more upbeat note after a grueling story of 12-year-old Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco) and his 16-year-old sister, Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), trying to make their way in the Iron Triangle of Willets Point, Queens, a veritable junkyard of auto repair shops, or chop shops. While his sister turns tricks for the repairman, Alejandro dreams of fixing up an abandoned van, converting it into a shiny tacomobile.

Goodbye Solo, Mr. Bahrani’s most ambitious narrative film to date, follows an unlikely friendship between an outgoing Sengalese cab driver named Solo (Souléymane Sy Savané) and an elderly Southern good ol’ boy named William (Red West). (It may be noted in passing that Mr. West once served as Elvis Presley’s bodyguard in Memphis.) Solo is anxious to provide for his feisty, pregnant young Mexican wife, Alex (Diana Franco Galindo), and his very outspoken 9-year-old daughter, Quiera (Carmen Leyva).

With Solo, we sit up and take notice when William produces a hundred dollars and offers it to Solo to pick him up in two weeks and take him to a mountaintop in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Solo senses a would-be suicide in the offing. The rest of the film consists of Solo’s futile efforts to stay close enough to William to persuade him to give up his plan. Mr. Bahrani has been clearly influenced by the motorized odysseys of celebrated Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. Ultimately, Goodbye Solo is a darkly poetic parable of the solitude of human existence, somewhat ameliorated by the occasional generosity of the human spirit.

asarris@observer.com