Persian Gulf - "Crimson Gold" Review

By Peter Rainier New York Magazine

Rich and poor live uneasily together in "Crimson Gold," Jafar Panahi's revealing tale of a Tehran pizza deliverer driven to murder.

Jafar Panahi's "Crimson Gold" opens with a four-minute sequence, filmed in a single take, in which a burly young man with a gun kills a jewelry-shop owner and then himself. In flashback, the rest of the movie shows what led up to the shooting. Panahi is, after Abbas Kiarostami - who wrote the screenplay - Iran's most celebrated filmmaker; his deeply unsettling 2000 movie "The Circle," about the lives of Iranian women in various stages of duress and persecution, is a modern classic. Panahi makes movies that seem almost haphazardly constructed, and yet, as they meander along, a cross-section of urban life is laid bare.

In "Crimson Gold," he has created a virtual Tehran tour guide. The shooter, Hussein (played by non actor Hussein Emadeddin), delivers pizza, and his job takes him into the homes and byways of the well-to-do: He arrives at the door of a friend who no longer recognizes him; the police keep him for hours outside a ritzy luxury apartment as they wait to arrest, for reasons that are murky, young people leaving a dance party; an upscale playboy, recently returned from living in America, invites him into his home and pours out his frustrations with women and Tehran. In scenes like these, we get an almost sensual feel for the blend of city life, for the ways in which rich and poor hang together in uneasy balance. When Hussein is detained by the police outside that apartment, he passes the time talking to a jittery teenage recruit and handing out pizzas to the gruff authorities, and it's as if we were seeing an entire society, with all its hierarchies, in microcosm. But Hussein is rarely this engaging. More often, he buzzes blank-faced through the crowded streets on his Vespa. When he's with his friend Ali (Kamyar Sheissi) or with his fiancée, Ali's sister (Azita Rayeji), or with practically anybody else, he's equally shuttered. I would guess that Panahi chose Emadeddin, a real-life pizza deliverer, precisely because of his blankness; his hardened face represents the mask of the beleaguered working man.

Panahi is making a common mistake - he thinks that strong and silent is the same thing as noble. Hussein is not simply an Everyman; there's a trace of madness in his glare. But this derangement is in the movie to make the point that Hussein is a good soul crazed by the corruptions of contemporary Tehran. It's not surprising that "Crimson Gold" has been banned in Iran; it's also no shock to discover that Emadeddin, according to an interview with Panahi, is schizophrenic. This is the kind of casting that a director like Werner Herzog might have been able to get away with - in a film like "Aguirre: The Wrath of God," mindscape and landscape are fused - but Panahi is a social realist, not a metaphysician. A trained actor, or an expressive non actor, might have held the screen and illuminated Hussein's odyssey of humiliation. But when we see him refused entry, based on his appearance, by the jeweler he will later murder, there's no sense of impending doom because Emadeddin never comes across as fully human - or even fully awake.

In the same way, when he's in the playboy's apartment, downing drinks and trying out exercise equipment, he doesn't have that walking-time-bomb quality that Panahi must have wanted. (In the very next scene, Hussein commits murder and the film comes full circle.) If anything, our sympathies move away from Hussein in times like these: The jeweler's killing, instead of being an explosion instigated by poverty and woe, makes us side with the old man, just as we feel for the lonesome playboy who opens up his home to Hussein, complaining that Tehran is "a city of lunatics."

I'm glad I saw "Crimson Gold." Watching it is like getting a peek behind the curtain. But it's frustrating, too, because the casting of Emadeddin as a murderer-in-the-making precludes any psychological depth. And as an indictment of social inequality, which is the film's calling card, Panahi inadvertantly makes a far better case for the haves than for the have-nots.

Originally Published January 19, 2004

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