The gritty urban drama "Crimson Gold" couldn't look more foreign or feel more familiar. Set in Tehran, this tough, bristling story about a working-class man pushed over the edge vividly brings to mind the great Hollywood social dramas of the 1930s, films that acknowledged it didn't take much for the desperate to cross the line. Poor people and social injustice may have all but disappeared from our movies, but in Iran the tradition of film as a means to express the most essential human struggles -- for love, for safety, for dignity -- continues unabated.
Visually, "Crimson Gold" has a loose, pseudo-documentary style (a kind of a post-neo-realism) that has come to define contemporary Iranian cinema. There's plenty of hand-held camerawork in the film, but director Jafar Panahi is actually a rigorous formalist with an exacting sense of movie time and space. As he did in his last feature, "The Circle," a shockingly blunt melodrama about escaped female prisoners, Panahi begins his new film at its forlorn end. In this case, the story opens with its central character, a mountain of a man named Hussein (nonprofessional actor Hussein Emadeddin), botching a jewelry-store heist. The violence of the scene is something of a jolt -- Iranian films generally take place in a mellower key -- a jolt that deepens when Hussein puts a gun to his head and fires.
Panahi reveals how and why Hussein arrived at this cataclysmic moment with an extended flashback that constitutes most of the film. Days, weeks, perhaps months earlier, Hussein's friend, an ingratiating motor mouth called Ali (Kamyar Sheissi), had found a woman's purse with a receipt for a necklace. Shocked at the price tag (how many months' salary does that equal, Ali wonders), the friends visit the jewelry store where the necklace was bought, only to be brusquely turned away by the owner. (He directs them to a souk.) The slight triggers a cascade of resentment in Hussein. Like another volatile ex-soldier, Travis Bickle, who judges the world from inside a taxicab, Hussein takes measure of his surroundings each time he goes to work, delivering pizzas for customers whose lives invariably seem better than his.
The comparison to Martin Scorsese's unhinged taxi driver is at once apt and misleading. Although their characters have similarities, Panahi, unlike Scorsese, doesn't exploit violence as a metaphor, much less as a means to an easy cinematic high. There's nothing sexy or glamorous about how Hussein waves around the gun during the robbery (the whole painful episode unwinds with a pointed lack of cool); it comes across as the last hopeless act of a hopeless man. The film tells one of the most fundamentally violent stories that we tell one another -- how it is that a person comes to lose his or her humanity -- but it does so without succumbing to the seductions of violence. That doesn't make Panahi the greater filmmaker, but it certainly makes him a less contradictory moralist than Scorsese.
The pulp vibe of "Crimson Gold" also invokes "Taxi Driver" -- at night, Tehran's mean streets can look like those of New York -- but the film also made me think of Robert Bresson's "L'Argent," which centers on a man violently undone by money. There are echoes of Bresson in both the story and Panahi's precise cinematography, with its absence of flash and superfluous movement. But more strikingly similar still is how, in each film, meaning drifts into view slowly, with a minimum of high drama. Through everyday actions and gestures -- in Hussein's awkward exchanges with other people, in his tender fumbling of his fiancee's purse -- Panahi shows a man for whom life has become increasingly arduous, alien. The filmmaker captures, in other words, what Bresson called "the force in the air before the storm."
"Crimson Gold" is set in a country that in this corner of the world, at least, is viewed as a political threat, part of the so-called axis of evil and a wellspring for some of the most exciting and vital cinema being made. For Panahi, who's censored in his own country and treated as a potential enemy of the state in this one -- in 2001, the director was detained at Kennedy International Airport for not having the correct visa -- the irony must be rich. Like his friend Abbas Kiarostami, who wrote the script for "Crimson Gold," Panahi exists in a strange twilight zone between domestic difficulty and international acclaim. ("Crimson Gold" won a jury award at Cannes last year.) And because Panahi refuses to be fingerprinted, he still can't enter the United States, which makes the gift of his newest film all the more important.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Gun violence
Azita Rayeji...the bride
Shahram Vaziri...the jeweler
Ehsan Amani...the man in the teahouse
Released by Wellspring. Director, producer, editor Jafar Panahi. Writer Abbas Kiarostami. Director of photography Hossain Jafarian. Production manager Jahangir Kosari. Art director Iraj Raminfar. Sound Dana Farzanehpour, Masoud Beham. Music Peyman Yazdanian. In Farsi with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.
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