As an exposé of class prejudice and police-state oppression, the Iranian film Crimson Gold doesn’t flinch. As a character study of an outsider slowly squeezed to death by society, it has moments of Fassbinder-like intensity. Not surprisingly, the film has been banned in Iran.
Crimson Gold is a collaborative work from two heavy-hitters of contemporary Iranian cinema and — in the deliberately paced manner of films from that country — packs quite a punch. Directed by Jafar Panahi and scripted by Abbas Kairostami, the script was inspired by a real event. It opens with a jewelry store robbery that takes a violent turn and then flashes back to tell the story of how the robber came to be in such a desperate place. The suffering soul is Hussein, a pizza deliveryman, who at first seems remote and uncommunicative to the point of being somewhat menacing. But it turns out that he’s all bloated and logy from the cortisone he’s been taking for an unspecified war injury and that underneath it all he’s actually a nice guy, generally liked by his co-workers and referred to as a “saint” by a fellow veteran.
Hussein’s niceness is constantly being tested, especially in two of the film’s three set pieces, the first where he’s detained by the police when he tries to deliver a pizza to a party, the second when he’s humiliated in a jewelry store when he tries to buy a necklace for his fiance. None of this involves personal attacks. The police harass him in a very indifferent manner; the jewelry store owner suggests that Hussein might want to shop in a poorer part of town in the politest way possible — but that makes it even worse, relegating Hussein to non-person status.
The strangest episode, one with a Fellini-esque feel to it (specifically the Fellini of Nights of Cabiria), involves Hussein delivering some pizzas to a luxurious apartment only to be invited in by a young man whose girlfriend has just walked out on him. The man just wants to talk, it doesn’t matter to whom, and Hussein reluctantly becomes his audience. When the man becomes distracted by his cell phone, Hussein begins to wander around the two-story apartment, which includes a fountain and swimming pool, becoming increasingly intoxicated both by the wine he’s taken from the man’s fridge and by the seductive effrontery of this high-rise paradise, lifted above the squalid rabble.
Director Panahi is a careful stylist, e.g., during the jewelry store robbery the camera sits still except for a nearly imperceptible forward movement. As the camera focuses in on one spot, continual action in and out of view heightens the suspense and impression of frenzied activity.
It’s all at the service of an old message — that a society which casts away some of its citizens is asking for trouble — and it’s one that seems here as urgent as ever.
In Farsi with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday, Aug. 23, at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].