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‘Goodbye Julia’ Review: An Operatic Drama Nimbly Tackles the Story of a Fractured Sudan



Threats of violence hang over every interaction in Mohamed Kordofani’s operatic Sudanese drama Goodbye Julia. The Khartoum on display is soundtracked by the din of gun shots, the screams of bodies burned alive and the clanking of makeshift homes being seized. So it’s a shock, but not necessarily a surprise, when the distracted woman hits the child with her car. The moment happens quickly: The child falls to the ground; a father finds the body and cries; the woman retreats; a chase ensues.

What should a father do after seeing his child harmed? This one gets on his motorcycle and follows the panicked woman. He yells for her to stop, to wait, to explain. She cannot just leave her injured child in the street. But this is Sudan in 2005, another civil war has ended and secession is on the horizon. The woman is brown-skinned and from the North. The man is dark-skinned and from the South. They co-exist in Khartoum, but the city does not see the Northerner and the Southerner equally. The country is haunted by racism: This scene, of the man on the bike, the woman frantically calling her husband, does not favor him.

Goodbye Julia

The Bottom Line

Resonant and accessible.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Cast: Eiman Yousif, Siran Riak, Nazar Gomaa, Ger Duany, Stephanos James Peter
Director-screenwriter: Mohamed Kordofani

1 hour 55 minutes

So, again, it may come as a shock, but not necessarily a surprise, when the woman finally makes it home and her husband, fearful of the Southerners he so casually refers to as savages and slaves, shoots the father dead. According to witnesses, Santino (Paulino Victor Bol), the dead man, was hostile and dangerous. Mona (played with understated severity by Eiman Yousif) doesn’t know how to tell her husband Akram (Nazar Gomaa) about what led to the chase. Wracked by guilt, she decides to find Santino’s family and anonymously atone.

Goodbye Julia threads the tense politics of a divided nation into the detailed tapestry of a quiet domestic drama. The Sudanese feature is a first for the Cannes official selection, but it’s borne of a rich cinematic tradition. Sudan’s film history includes the work of African film pioneer Gadalla Gubara and recent projects like Suhaib Gasmelbari’s Talking About Trees and Amjad Abu Alala’s You Will Die at Twenty. Kordofani’s film distinguishes itself from the contemporary pack as a narrative feature that attempts to wrestle with the secession and the discrimination faced by Southern Sudanese people.

The seams of Goodbye Julia are held together by the delicate web of Mona’s contradictory emotions and actions, which swing between misguided and well-intentioned. Kordofani, with the help of cinematographer Pierre de Villier, tethers viewers to Mona through a generous use of intimate close-ups. Her face becomes a canvas, revealing the depth of her gnawing regret and steely resolve. Yousif, a Sudanese theater actress and singer, assuredly handles the demands of her character’s range of feeling. The weight of guilt burdens Mona, who for too long decides that lying is the only way to alleviate the pressure.

Mona seeks out Santino’s widow, Julia (Siran Riak, in her debut role), while the latter is hawking goods on the street. Julia doesn’t recognize Mona, and pays little attention to the woman’s peculiar manners. Mona insists on buying an expensive amount of the grain Julia sells before asking her if she knows any maids. Transactions initially define the relationship between these two women: Julia takes the job as Mona’s live-in maid; Mona offers to pay for Julia’s son, Danny (played by Louis Daniel Ding first, then Stephanos James Peter), to go to school. Mona doesn’t tell Akram about her plans, although he does watch her with some suspicion.

Julia never really stops looking for Santino. She goes to the police, who ignores her queries, and asks friends if they have seen him. She worries he might be dead, and then is enraged by the thought of him abandoning them. Kordofani sketches Julia less precisely than Mona. Although there’s a palpable desire on the part of the filmmaker to humanize her character, she can feel stiff at times. A rare moment of vulnerability — when a bereaved Julia opens caskets during a public funeral, in hopes of finding her husband — teases us with the possibility that the character can be more than Mona’s foil.

Goodbye Julia moves languidly from scene to scene, with the exception of one time jump that brings the narrative from 2005 to 2010. Kordofani offers viewers a sense of both the major catastrophes and the quiet lulls in Mona and Julia’s lives. They start a friendship, and Akram even takes Danny on as an apprentice in woodworking. You can see Kordofani working through his political ideas about the root causes of secession via the relationships in this household. Mona and Akram, whose marriage has already been rocky, fight more pointedly about their differing views. Mona accuses Akram of being racist, and Akram responds that his wife is no better than him: Julia, at the end of the day, is her maid and not her friend.

These conversations, inspired by Kordofani’s own upbringing, wrestle with racism, religious tensions, xenophobia and what it means to build a national identity in the face of it all. In recent interviews, the director referenced his childhood — specifically, growing up with people from the Southern region of Sudan as domestic workers in his home — as an inspiration. That’s evident in the way he navigates the shifting relationships between Mona, Julia, Danny and Akram, which occasionally feels cast in an unrealistic romantic glow.

Kordofani gets around to cracking that perfect façade near the end of the film, which doesn’t map out the way you’d expect. There’s thankfully no forced forgiveness or avoidance of rage here, especially when Mona’s lies begin to unravel. But what does unfold makes you wish we had spent more time with Julia and Danny; quiet moments between mother and son might have strengthened our sense of them as individuals with their own desires and motivations. There are attempts to give Julia’s character more dimension through a love interest (played by Ger Duany), but that development feels rushed compared to the conversations Akram and Mona have about their own marriage.

Still, Goodbye Julia will bring to life Sudanese issues for audiences. Kordofani’s fine direction balances the film’s multiple modes: It’s a drama, with shades of a thriller and a sense of its own politics. With its classic, accessible style, Goodbye Julia will surely rally more support for the cinema of Sudan, a nation full of stories that need to be told about its past and present.

Watching the film, my mind kept wandering towards Julia, wondering about her childhood growing up in Khartoum and her feelings about what place to call home. Kordofani gestures at some of these questions throughout Goodbye Juliabut their answers could be the subject of their own movie.

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