Bleary and hungover from the endless blather of the annual Top 10 ritual, I find it bracing to review a movie that might well end up among the 10 best movies of 2004. Like more than a few of last year’s most impressive releases, Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s Crimson Gold is an anti-blockbuster—a deceptively modest undertaking that brilliantly combines unpretentious humanism and impeccable formal values.
Since directing his 1996 prizewinner, The White Balloon, Panahi—the Iranian filmmaker to enjoy the greatest degree of U.S. exposure (and endure the greatest visa problems)—has gone from strength to strength. Crimson Gold, which had its local premiere at the last New York Film Festival, isn’t as showy a critique of Iranian society as The Circle, but it’s no less forthright. The screenplay, by Panahi’s mentor, Abbas Kiarostami (who also wrote The White Balloon), is based on an actual incident. The subject is not gender oppression but class relations—with the camera often assigned the perspective of a lower-class outsider.
Crimson Gold (which I take to mean something like “blood money”) opens with a black screen and the words “What do you want?” There’s a crime in progress; the film’s luckless protagonist, Hussein (Hussein Emadeddin), passes from in front of the camera to raise the curtain on an amazingly bungled jewelry store robbery. For four minutes or so, a fixed camera contemplates the action as Hussein argues with the unseen store owner. The darkened interior functions almost like a camera obscura—Hussein lumbers back and forth in the foreground, alternately revealing and concealing a sliver of the outside street where, once he triggers the alarm, a crowd begins to gather.
This inept stunt ends badly and the rest of the movie is flashback. Hussein’s fate is sealed when his little pal Ali finds a lost purse with a receipt for a ridiculously expensive necklace— evidence, as if any were needed, of an Iranian haute bourgeoisie. Old enough to have fought and been wounded in the Iraq-Iran War, the taciturn Hussein is a pizza boy—stoically riding his motorbike through Tehran on behalf of the order-out class. (In the tradition of Iranian self-reflexivity, the actor is himself an actual pizza delivery man.)
Panahi is above all an urban filmmaker, and Crimson Gold unfolds in the midst of life. The movie is spare yet richly observant. Hussein may be big, but he’s invisible. Schlepping up apartment building stairs with his delivery, he’s ignored by the police posted outside to bust illegally fraternizing unmarried couples. In the movie’s other set piece, Hussein delivers three pizzas to a neurotic rich kid who has just been jilted by the three girls he invited over to his parents’ palatial pad. (In his repressed frenzy, the guy imagines that the females have menstruated on the floor of the fancy bathroom.) Women are seldom seen but much talked about in Crimson Gold, particularly by the endlessly chattering Ali. His sister, whom he is trying to get Hussein to marry, is (in her major scene) no less loquacious as she rides behind Hussein on his motorbike.
The rich boy, newly returned from America (where his parents still live), invites Hussein to share the pizza with him—then spends most of the time jabbering on his cell phone. A stranger in paradise, Hussein wanders through the palace with a bottle in his hand. There’s even a swimming pool. He teeters a bit on the edge and then plunges in. The next shot shows him waddling around like a pasha, swaddled in towels. Then day dawns on Tehran, another “crimson gold,” and the movie comes full circle.
Crimson Gold is a movie of long silences, and in the case of Hussein Emadeddin’s eloquently expressionless presence—Buster Keaton as Fatty Arbuckle—almost a silent movie. Communication happens around him. Impassively rocking back on his heels, the sleepy-eyed Hussein projects tremendous comic dignity. (He could personify Dostoyevsky’s title The Insulted and the Injured.) Hussein may be Iran’s forgotten man, but the performance he gives is indelible.