All that glitters - "Crimson Gold" Review

By David Lipfert

How much does it take to push someone to the point of no return? Iran is the setting of "Crimson Gold," but given the right amount of economic injustice and personal insult, almost anyone anywhere can turn volatile.

Even when you know the outcome, it can still shock. And director Jafar Panahi puts that shock right in the beginning of his latest film, "Crimson Gold." It's based on a true story, here told as one long flashback. It's also a dark tale, with the most memorable scenes shot in shadowy darkness, police sirens providing an aural backdrop.

The chain of events kicks off with Hussein (Hussein Emadeddin) mulling over the contents of a purse his eager sidekick Ali (Kamyar Sheissi) has just pinched. It was hardly worth the effort for the little money inside. But a receipt for a $90,000 necklace intrigues him. So to see what is worth more than a lifetime's wages at Hussein's day job of delivering pizzas, the two head off to the exclusive jeweler that sold the gold necklace.

The owner takes one look at the scruffy pair and pulls down a security gate. He summarily sends them away to the cheaper gold bazaar area with surface politeness, and thereby puts the action in high gear.

Well, not too high, because hulking Hussein is usually expressionless, so we can only guess what he's thinking. He has plenty of time for that while supplying pizzas to the well-to-do in an upscale section of Tehran. And some of these people are very well-to-do. Try a Pourang (Pourang Nakhaei) in a duplex penthouse with swimming pool and spectacular views. Makes you rethink your ideas about Iran.

But back to Hussein. On the job he gets to see other things, too. A young co-worker proudly shows off his new sneakers. Later that night, Hussein chances to pass by an accident scene where the kid has become a fatality. Another night Hussein tries to deliver pizzas to a building that morals police (Pasdaran) have staked out to nab unsuspecting guests at a prohibited party. He befriends a young guy in uniform with rifle in hand, another fellow have-not who will never reach the partygoers' level of privilege.

The most Hussein can aspire to is marry Ali's sister Azita (Azita Rayeji) and make her a modest gold offering. So, dressed in their best suits, the two make their way back to the upmarket jewelry store, Azita in tow. While she looks at $1,000 necklaces with a salesman, Hussein takes in the sheer wealth in the display cases. When the owner makes an appearance, he immediately steers them toward items they could more easily pawn. Not part of his stock, of course, but at the gold bazaar downtown.

Back on the street, Hussein fumes inwardly and plots his revenge. In the film's sequence of events, a few more encounters with the genteel but filthy rich are enough to precipitate the final result shown at the beginning.

It's likely that critics and audiences will mistakenly see the film as a portrait of contemporary Iranian society. But Panahi is telling a story about one person, even though he uses realistic elements. Hussein is no more your average put-upon Iranian than Thelma and Louise are average Americans. Yes, the Pasdaran are still a factor, but a diminishing one. The events depicted in the film are entirely believable, but they correspond more to five or ten years ago than the present. Likewise, Panahi was less out to depict the wrongs of Iranian society in his last feature, "The Circle," than to tell a good story. He's a storyteller, and his method is realism.

Two aspects of the film merit special mention. First is the menacing mood, Just as in "The Circle," many scenes take place a night with the characters enveloped in shadows, a deft comment on their lives. Also, Panahi uses a backdrop of continuous police sirens to good effect, although one rarely hears them in Tehran today. Second is the pizza as a symbol of modernity. While they may be too moist and too spongy to qualify as Italian cousins, their appeal as anti-traditional food is undeniable, particularly among the sort of uptown people Hussein serves. (Strangely enough, his pizzas don't come with packets of pungent tomato sauce that home deliveries in Tehran usually supply in abundance.)

Cause and effect, the events that bring on the bloody conclusion (the "crimson" part of the title) are the focus in this film. Individual psychology plays only a secondary role, because Panahi's implication is that anyone under those particular circumstances might behave the same. We never quite get inside Hussein's mind and can only guess what he's thinking. Part of this may be because of casting. Panahi continues to use non actors, and this has two main effects on his films. On the plus side the faces are fresh and everyone looks exactly like their character. But non actors often have rather frozen expressions and they don't give much nuance. It's a tradeoff that directors make in part to show off their skill. But having seen a number of stage productions in Iran, this observer would bet he's also eager to avoid the mediocre level of most Iranian-trained professionals.

The only participant in "Crimson Gold" who might have a future in film is Kamyar Sheissi as Hussein's excitable but devoted best friend. Another plus is Abbas Kiarostami's screenplay, which has all the directness he avoids in own meandering and purposely inconclusive films, Kiarostami has had another superb collaboration with Panahi - "The White Balloon."

Sadly, director Panahi won't be here to present his film. But can you blame him? The last time he passed through the U.S. in transit, he wound up being chained to a bench for ten hours in an INS holding pen. What should have been a visa-less change of planes became a nightmare that ended only when Panahi was "deported" back to Hong Kong. There wasn't outrage when this happened about two years ago. And now the incident has become lost amid even worse post-9/11 security-induced horror stories.

Originally Published October 8, 2003

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