Poverty, then Death

cgoldNot having seen Jafar Panahi’s previous films (The White Balloon, The Circle), I was caught off guard by his mastery of the medium. This 43-year-old Iranian director (he’s also his own editor and producer) is a major talent. He opens Crimson Gold with a jewelry store heist gone awry. The sequence lasts about four minutes, and Panahi positions the camera in a stationary spot during the tussle between robber and shop owner. Panahi uses the screen as a frame within a frame; through the rectangular light of the store entrance, spectators gawk in from without, or scurry past the crime scene. Divisions of darkness—where the violence takes place—flank the entryway, and I thought that if this were an American movie, there would be constant cutaways and close-up reaction shots. Mercifully, not here. Even when the failed thief goes berserk and smashes the shop to bits, it’s the sound design that does the damage. Almost imperceptibly, the camera pulls in; the doorframe gradually widens to encompass the entire screen, and the robber, his back turned to the on-lookers, sinks down as he puts a gun to his head.

I wish that the film overall were at that level. In etching the vicissitudes of the poor, Crimson Gold has moments of power that can stand alongside the most harrowing passages in Umberto D and Nights of Cabiria. The rest of the movie traces what led to the attempted burglary, and unfortunately the script (written by Abbas Kiarostami, maker of the abominable Taste of Cherry) bogs down in scenes that run on too long. The most excruciating of these will be unfathomable if you don’t know the Iranian laws that forbid “dancing in mixed company.” The film’s hero, a pizza deliveryman named Hussein, gets caught in a police dragnet of unsuspecting party revelers. Forced to stay put, Hussein ends up feeding the stranded “guests” and their captors; he walks slowly from person to person, offering each individual a slice of pizza. Some accept, some don’t.

Cinematographer Hossain Jafarian supplies lovely noir-ish touches throughout Crimson Gold, such as rain-slicked streets reflecting the city lights. Panahi showcases Tehran in its high and low extremes—the city becomes a character in its own right. And all the actors are non-professionals. Except for Kamyar Sheissi, who overplays his role as Hussein’s friend Ali, the performances are first-rate, especially Shahram Vaziri as the jeweler. Hussein Emadeddin, like his namesake in the film, delivers pizza for a living.

In a stunning finale, Hussein makes a delivery to a plush apartment house, and the lonely, slender Edward Norton look-alike who opens the door invites him in. The lavish interior represents everything that Hussein will never have; his charming host, who initially wants Hussein’s companionship but becomes distracted on the phone with a lady friend, is everything that the drab, overweight deliveryman cannot be. Left on his own, Hussein takes an unguided tour of this palace, and by the time he discovers, plunges into, and emerges god-like from a spectacular indoor swimming pool, we know that this taste of the good life will be too much and not enough. – NPT

March 2004