Jafar Panahi's Crimson Gold grips us with a startling start, and one that is particularly unusual, and daring, in Iranian cinema: An armed robber holds up a Tehran jewelry store at gunpoint, killing the owner and, ultimately, himself. It's an event torn from actual newspaper headlines, but one that has nevertheless resulted in Panahi's film being banned in its home country, where the subject—let alone the act—of suicide is verboten. Crimson Gold then loops back on itself to show, but not necessarily to explain (or, rather, to necessarily not explain), the impulses leading up to that spasmodic burst of violence.
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Scripted by the master Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, for whom Panahi once worked as an assistant (and whose own Taste of Cherry ran into censorship problems of its own by featuring a main character who merely contemplated taking his own life), Crimson Gold is less explicitly about suicide than about a general condition of despair that casts itself over the denizens of Tehran like a thick cloud of automotive exhaust. For Hussein (Hussein Emadeddin), a petty thief and part-time pizza deliveryman, that condition is heightened by his inability to come to terms with the fact that, in a society marked by deep divisions between classes, he is most conspicuously one of the have-nots. Upon their first attempt to buy a wedding gift for Hussein's fiance, Hussein and his future brother-in-law are both refused entrance to an upscale jewelry store in the "good" part of town. Later, when they return cleaned up and in better clothes, they're admitted, only to then be told by the owner that they might want to invest in something that can be "more easily liquidated should the need arise."
As embodied by the real-life schizophrenic Emadeddin, Hussein is a bear of a man with spaced-out eyes and a delayed manner of speaking that causes him to appear permanently lost in some private reverie. For much of the film, he traverses Tehran from its poorest tenements to its most glittering penthouses, a passive voyeur and our guide to momentary glimpses of how life is lived in those places. (Pizza, Panahi and Kiarostami comically suggest, is the great equalizer—an idea that culminates in a brilliant set piece in which a rich playboy, flustered following an argument with his girlfriend, invites Hussein in for dinner and a tour of his ostentatious bachelor pad.) Over time, we gradually pick up more details about the character: that he was once a soldier who served in military intelligence, that he is now heavily medicated on cortisone, and that, despite his sullen, unresponsive demeanor, people generally like Hussein. Yet, fascinatingly and frustratingly, nothing specifically accounts for his ultimate lashing out; no individual moment is offered up as the sort of "psychological break" we've been conditioned to expect from countless other movies and their Freudian character logic. Rather, Crimson Goldis, like the society it depicts, an unbalanced chemical equation, with Hussein its free radical.
This marks something of a departure for Panahi, whose three previous features, The White Balloon (also scripted by Kiarostami), The Mirror and The Circle, while all affecting and impressively styled, felt a tad too calculated, a bit too concerned with making sure all of their symbols and meanings and clever ruptures of linear narrative added up to some readily discernible payoff. In Crimson Gold, Panahi seems at last to speak with his own beguiling, cryptically beautiful expressiveness, which grows ever more absorbing with each of its purposefully irresolute turns. The result is the work of a funereal yet darkly funny neorealist, sounding the rallying cry against the inflexible maxim casually delivered by one of his own film's characters: "It all existed before us. It will all go on after us."
Crimson Gold was produced and directed by Jafar Panahi; written by Abbas Kiarostami; and stars Hussein Emadeddin. Now playing at Edwards University, Invine.