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Crimson Gold

(2004) *** 1/2 Unrated
97 min. Wellspring. Director: Jafar Panahi. Cast: Pourang Nakhael, Hossain Emadeddin, Kamyar Sheisi, Azita Rayej, Shahram Vaziri.

Employing mesmerizing understatement, director Jafar Panahi spins Crimson Gold from a yarn scripted by Abbas Kiarostami. The film details the absurdity of the class gap in modern Tehran ("...a city of lunatics") with dry humor, gut-wrenching drama, and complex characterizations, particularly of the central figure: a troubled pizza deliveryman played--in Iranian neo-realist tradition--by a real-life pizza deliveryman with paranoid schizophrenia (Hussein Emadeddin).

Kiarostami and Panahi's story begins in a jewelry shop, where the hulking shadow of a thief bungles a robbery. Abruptly, Panahi flings us back to the days leading up to that robbery. The hulking shadow turns out to be Hussein, the pizza deliveryman. Shadowed by his buddy Ali (Kamyar Sheissi), whose sister he intends to marry, Hussein ekes out an ignominious existence constantly complicated by more entitled characters. In one extensive, deeply felt sequence, Hussein's delivery is locked down by cops on a stakeout. Though the authority's job is to thwart fun (pointedly, the police are staking out a loud bash and busting party-goers), they more destructively interrupt even Hussein's means of subsistence as they "protect and serve." In the crowning irony, Hussein's hapless dejection turns to compassion, as he befriends an underage cop and gives away the rest of his pizzas to the dug-in assemblage.

Thus, Crimson Gold is the story of an essentially good man beaten down to criminal size. In one early scene, a respectable-looking criminal advises Hussein and Ali about a life of crime. Preaching professionalism and honesty even among thieves, he points out, "If you want to arrest a thief, you'll have to arrest the world." Crimson Gold makes out the "haves" as the spiritual thieves of the "have nots." In one scene, Hussein, his fiancee (Azita Rayeji), and Ali dress up to breach the gate of the jewelry shop; the jewelers' thorough condescension inflames Hussein's anxiety. Ali professes that Hussein suffers from claustrophobia, but he may be hiding a more burdensome, unnamed condition.

Another pivotal scene late in the picture finds Hussein delivering pizzas to a young man (Pourang Nakhayi) squatting in his parents' obscenely well-appointed apartment suite; he feigns goodheartedness in inviting Hussein in to enjoy the pizzas--since the young man's girlfriends have flown the coop. But the host vomits out his preoccupations to Hussein as if he were a therapist, then abandons him to take a phone call. Wandering the opulent apartment in somber awe, Hussein becomes drunk in a flash (suggesting he's already medicated) and arrives at a borderline suicidal funk. Before long, we're back in the shadowy jewelry store, witnessing the unmaking of a man whose society has seemed to conspire against his well-being and even his humble pride. The conclusion arrives to the viewer with the chest-shattering impact of a bullet.

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