"Crimson Gold" - Jafar Panahi (2003)

Jafar Panahi, direct from the triumph of his brilliant The Circle (Dayereh, 2000) , next came up with Crimson Gold (Talaye Sorkh, 2003), which attracted considerable attention from its presentation at overseas film festivals. Although most films are ultimately collaborations on the part of many creators that should be judged collectively, in this case I see the film from two distinct perspectives. Panahi’s cinematography and mise-en-scène is extraordinarily inventive and fluid, an outstanding achievement, and by itself merits a rating of ★★★★. But Abbas Kiarostami’s screenplay is fundamentally defective and deserves a BOMB rating. So these two perspectives will be examined separately.

The story is based on a real incident and concerns a pizza delivery man, Hossain Emadeddin, who finds himself delivering pizza to swank customers in the upper-class north end of Tehran. After a few of these encounters, Hossain attempts an armed robbery of a ritzy jewelry store. But the attempt fails immediately, and Hossain kills the shop owner and them himself. The film begins with the botched robbery and suicide, and the rest of the film depicts an extended flashback of events that lead up to the fatal ending. Since we know immediately where the events subsequently shown are heading, we watch much of the film looking for clues concerning what were the causes that led to this tragedy.

We don’t really know much about the character Hossain, but it is notable that the non-professional actor who plays this role is also named Hossain Emadeddin, is also a real-life pizza delivery man, and is said to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia. As the film progresses, though, we learn that the character Hossain is about 43 years old, fought in the Iran-Iraq war, and, perhaps as a result of that experience, must take cortisone medication, which slows him down to a lethargic crawl and has caused him to undergo massive weight gain. The Hossain we see in the film, an overweight slug, is apparently not the man that he had once been. The flashback sequences that make up the film cover a few lengthy encounters, almost completely in real time, that are apparently supposed to provide us with the crucial events that led Hossain to his destruction.
  1. Initially, Hossain’s buddy delivery man and intendant brother-in-law, Ali, shows Hossain a purse that he “found”, which contains a ring and a purchase receipt for a necklace costing about $75,000. They are so astounded by the price tag that they ride up to the elegant uptown jewelry store where the necklace was purchased in order to find out what the ring is worth. Upon arrival, though, the two scruffily dressed characters are denied admission to the posh interior, and Hossain seethes with indignation.
  2. Hossain then delivers some pizzas to a wealthy person who turns out to be a former war comrade. It is painfully evident to both of them how comparatively inferior Hossain’s current circumstances are, and the customer awkwardly offers Hossain a big tip.
  3. Hossain delivers pizzas to another north Tehran building where a dance party is in the process of being raided by the Iranian morality police. Clearly, you’re not allowed to have that kind of fun in modern day Iran. The rude and abusive manner in which the police manhandle everyone they see present a grim picture of a malignant social order. (In fact, we later see the same kind of oppressive police action applied even in Hossain's humble neighborhood.) In this instance of the party, Hossain is held in custody at the site during the all-night police raid. While he is waiting, he chats with a teenage policeman and finally offers everyone, police and those arrested alike, to share his now undeliverable pizzas.
  4. Hossain, his fiancé, and Ali go back to the uptown jewelry store, this time with Hossain dressed in a Europan suit, which enables them to gain admission to the store. Hossain tries to play the role of the big spender, but actually anything costing more than a few hundred dollars is out of his price range. The sales people eventually suggest that the customers look for something downtown, and again Hossain quietly fumes with rage as they depart.
  5. Hossain delivers pizza to a lavish uptown penthouse and gets invited inside by the agitated young resident who has just been dumped by his new girlfriend. The self-absorbed host, a recently returned expatriate from the US, confides to Hossain his alienation from the society he has rejoined, which he says is now unrecognizable and crazy. When the host gets interrupted by a phone call from the girl, Hossain wanders around the huge penthouse and surveys the luxury.
The final scene shows the very beginning of the botched jewelry store holdup, with the identical interior camera setup that was seen at the start of the film.

The problem with all this is that the five main scenes that come before the attempted heist do not lead anywhere, and they do not provide a basis on which to justify the culmination. There is no denouement, just some random slice-of-life scenes involving a poor, unfortunate man wandering around Tehran, followed by a violent and suicidal finale. True, we see a materially poor man observing people with wealth, but this kind of thing happens all the time -- there needs to be more motivation for the ultimate violence. Critics have praised the film for showing the wide gulf between rich and poor in Iran, which presumably provides the motivation, but this is a false reading. In fact, it is more instructive to compare Crimson Gold with Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Warum Läuft Herr R. Amok? (Why Does Mr. R. Run Amok?, 1970). In that German film a somewhat harassed and nagged householder drifts quietly through his unsatisfactory married life, until he finally bludgeons his wife to death with a candlestick holder at the end of the movie. In Fassbinder’s film, in contrast to Crimson Gold, there is a slow, admittedly boring, narrative build-up to the final violence. But there is indeed a progression. That progression does more or less help us understand what has happened to Herr R. Unfortunately, this is not the case with Crimson Gold. Yes, male pride and "face" are overemphasized in many cultures, but the events depicted in Crimson Gold are not sufficiently emasculating for most viewers to empathise with the final actions. Yes, Hossain is an unfortunate character, but he is too opaque. Western critics apparently project into his psyche their own demands and programs for social justice and human dignity.

But now let’s consider the positive side. We have seen outstanding handheld and moving vehicle camera work in Panahi’s earlier The Mirror and The Circle, but here he outdoes himself. In Crimson Gold, the long, fluid camera movements, always maintaining appropriate pictorial compositions and with very few cuts, make each scene come alive with dynamism and intimacy. There is one long conversation between Hossain and his fiancé while riding on his motorcycle that is exquisitely done. The long opening shot from inside the jewelry store seems to echo the camera work of Hou Hsiao-hsien. This is not like the static camera shots of Kiarostami, but instead features carefully orchestrated actions coming into and out of the frame during the course of the shot. All the while, the camera is engaged in a barely perceptible zoom-in movement.

In fact, each of the five slice-of-life scenes are so well laid-out, performed, and filmed, that they are interesting in their own right and provide their own justification for seeing the film. They each provide a little interaction in modern-day Tehran that holds the viewer’s interest as it plays out. But those scenes don’t collectively add up to anything. In fact, I might have accepted those five scenes on their own, if they had just been presented for what they are, or as individual observations of a dysfunctional society. One could possibly infer that the various scenes show an Iranian society whose various inequities may somehow lead eventually to an explosion. But in Crimson Gold, they are encapsulated as flashbacks to explain a murder-suicide. That’s what doesn’t work.

Even so, Panahi's talents are evident and bear watching in future releases.
★★½

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