Slice With Extra Desperation - "Crimson Gold" Review

By A.O. Scott The New York Times

Jafar Panahi's "Crimson Gold," which will be shown at the 41st New York Film Festival tonight and tomorrow, begins with the armed robbery of a Tehran jewelry store, an event captured in one motionless shot as if by a security camera, albeit one that has been set up for artistic effect rather than efficient surveillance. Gunshots are exceedingly rare in Iranian movies, and the two that are fired in the opening moments reverberate with particular force, even though the crime they aggravate looks banal and amateurish.

The robbery is the sort that might rate a brief mention in the morning paper or the evening news and then be swept aside in the rush of city life. And indeed, it was a newspaper article about a similar incident that piqued the interest of Mr. Panahi and Abbas Kiarostami, who wrote the screenplay.

Mr. Kiarostami, the lion of contemporary Iranian art cinema, and Mr. Panahi, who has established himself with "The White Balloon" and "The Circle" as one of Iran's leading urban filmmakers, set out to explain what drove the robber, a pizza deliveryman and a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, to his desperate, self-destructive act of violence. The answer is not altogether surprising, and at times "Crimson Gold" exhibits a finger-pointing didacticism as it exposes the cruelties and inequities of a society sharply polarized by class and corrupted by selfishness, snobbery and cynicism. But the occasional obviousness of the film's themes is more than balanced by the subtlety of its methods, and by the stolid, irreducible individuality of its protagonist, Hussein.

Hussein, played by a nonprofessional actor named Hussein Emadeddin, is heavy and slow-moving; his speech is thick and slurred, perhaps as a result of medication he takes to treat his war injuries. He is engaged to the sister of his naive, talkative co-worker, Ali (Kamyar Sheissi), but otherwise seems utterly solitary. Riding through the traffic-clogged streets of Tehran on Hussein's motorcycle, he and Ali are like a neo-realist Laurel and Hardy. Ali is chirpy and clueless, while Hussein's stony impassivity looks, from certain angles, like the driest deadpan. He observes the absurdities around him with detachment, registering disgust and amusement with the slightest twitch of his fleshy, pockmarked jaw.

One night Hussein's attempt to deliver some pizzas to a party in a fancy building is thwarted by the police, who are staked out in front so they can arrest unmarried couples and illicit drinkers as they leave. From his minimal reactions, we intuit that Hussein is impatient with the police, who also prey on his own neighbors, and also resentful of the privileged, self-indulgent partygoers. His job brings him repeatedly to the doorways of Tehran's well-heeled, Westernized citizens, who often treat him as though he were invisible. An old army buddy fails to recognize him, and then brushes him off, emptily promising to keep in touch before sending him off with a tip.

Hussein's greatest humiliations come at the jewelry store, in which rich customers are greeted with obsequious courtesy while he is met with coldness and condescension. On their first visit, he and Ali are turned away by the owner, and later, when they return with Ali's sister to pick out a wedding gift, cruelly patronized. His companions either don't notice the treatment or decide to shrug it off, but it gnaws at Hussein, making him physically sick and setting up the robbery (which is revisited in the last scene) as revenge for accumulated slights and insults.

In between his last two visits to the store, however, there is a sequence so haunting and strange that it turns the movie into something much more opaque and unsettling than the social-problem melodrama it sometimes seems to be. On another late-night delivery run, Hussein finds himself at the door of an opulent duplex apartment inhabited by a young man who seems to be his opposite in every way: thin, rich, talkative, cosmopolitan. The man invites Hussein to join him, and the encounter is charged with an enigmatic sense of danger and uncertainty that never quite dissipates, and that alters your perception of everything that has come before -- and after.

Originally Published October 3, 2003

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