NEW YORK — Iranian poetry, Ramin Bahrani says over coffee in a SoHo cafe, has a tradition known as tazmin, in which a poet takes an image, or a verse, from a distinguished predecessor, and crafts something original out of the borrowed fragment.
Bahrani writes no poetry, and his own roots are found more in North Carolina, where he was born and raised, than in his parents' native Iran, but the concept of tazmin is deeply relevant to his latest film, "Goodbye Solo," which opens in Los Angeles on Friday. The story of a Senegalese taxi driver and his burgeoning relationship with an elderly white man seemingly intent on ending his own life, "Solo" owes a distinct debt to Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's 1997 masterpiece "Taste of Cherry."
In "Taste of Cherry," a middle-aged man cruises the streets of Tehran, looking for a young man who will assist him in committing suicide. Like its distinguished predecessor, "Goodbye Solo" is about two men, one intent on dying and the other imploring him to reconsider. Invoking tazmin, Bahrani has crafted a film in the mold of "Taste of Cherry" but one that ventures in an entirely different and uncharted direction.
"It would have been foolish for me not to acknowledge, as I created the story and began writing it, that there's a film called 'Taste of Cherry,' " says Bahrani. "Goodbye Solo" owes a large debt to Kiarostami not only in its plotting but in its evocative landscape photography, which may remind astute viewers of the director's "Life and Nothing More." But tazmin only demands of its practitioners to, as the director sees it, "make it your own and create something new."
His Iranian heritage notwithstanding, Bahrani's third film is a deeply American enterprise, passionately devoted to documenting existences otherwise absent from movie screens. Like the work of Kelly Reichardt ("Wendy and Lucy") or Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden ("Sugar"), Bahrani's first two films, "Man Push Cart" and "Chop Shop," were reacting to the ever-bigger, ever-more-grandiose Hollywood blockbuster by telling stories about the invisible of America: the poor, illegal immigrants, the urban working class. "One of the things that was in my head," Bahrani says of "Man Push Cart," about a Manhattan pushcart vendor, "was picking a subject that I hadn't seen before." Last year's "Chop Shop" was similarly inclined, with Bahrani's camera weaving throughout an auto-repair business in the shadow of Shea Stadium.
"Goodbye Solo" is both a continuation of that trend and a divergence. To begin with, it is set in Bahrani's native North Carolina, not in New York City. The bustling, chaotic streetscapes have been replaced by the bucolic, melancholic patina of the Tarheel State. Bahrani was inspired by an encounter, some years ago, with a local taxi driver who did not himself own a car and had to cadge rides or take cabs to get to his job. Bahrani remembers telling his acquaintance, "You're a taxi driver and you don't have a car? One day I'll come make a film about you."
Driving around the area while visiting his family, the director would occasionally spot an older gentleman standing at the side of a road, outside a nursing facility. He would wave, and the man would wave back. Bahrani said he would enjoy the encounters but would also feel saddened by what he perceived as the man's loneliness. The driver without a car and the aimless older man in search of companionship fused in his mind, and the kernel that would become "Goodbye Solo," written with Bahareh Azimi, began to grow.
The character of Solo, a Senegalese immigrant dreaming of a career as a flight attendant, is another in Bahrani's gallery of shadow-economy hustlers, striving for a buck and a better life, but he differs in important ways from his predecessors. Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane) is a comical figure, peppering his conversation with half-digested nuggets of hip-hop-inflected speech. Everyone who rides in his taxi is referred to as "big dog," and he genially asks his passenger William, the older gentleman he picks up (played by Red West), "You like big booties?" Beneath the hearty exterior lies a soul aching for uncomplicated connection. Solo latches on to William in the hope of reminding him of life's unadorned pleasures.
Bahrani shot the film in and around his hometown, Winston-Salem, in September and October 2007, and was very hands-on when working with his actors, many of whom were nonprofessionals. "He is a filmmaker whose actors feel strongly about working with him," says Savane, who makes his feature film debut with "Goodbye Solo." "Ramin, to me, is one of the greatest [directors] right now."