"Gold and Copper" - Homayoun Assadian (2011)

Gold and Copper (Tala va Mes, 2011) is an Iranian film directed by Homayoun Assadian about a young married couple that must come to terms with a devastating personal tragedy. What distinguishes this particular work above others of its kind is the modern religious setting and perspective in which the story is told.  However, depending on your interpretations in this area, some of you may have different reactions to the film.

The film is well made, with excellent camera work, editing, and fine performances. The story proceeds through four phases, with the last act reaching a kind of problematic mental resolution that I will discuss below.

1.  Seyyed Reza Comes to Study in Tehran
The beginning of the film shows Seyyed Reza (played by Behrouz Shaibi), a young seminarian from Nishapur who has come to Tehran with his family to pursue advanced studies in theology under an eminent scholar.  He is accompanied by his wife, Zahra Sadat Moein (Negar Javaherian), and two young children – Atefeh, who is about seven years old, and Amir Ali, who is about one year old.

His title/name of “Seyyed” indicates that he is a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, which gives him special distinction and allows him to wear a black amameh (turban), while all other mullahs and seminarians must wear white amamehs.  At the Tehran seminary he is welcomed as a promising scholar who has been a high achiever at his earlier schools.  When he is offered the opportunity to teach lower-level classes, he declines, saying that he wants to devote all his time to his studies.

When the family moves into their small apartment, Seyyed is troubled to observe that his hoped-for serene study environment may not be so quiet.  His elderly next door neighbour, Ms Azam, lives with her grownup grandchild, Aida, who has Down’s Syndrome and has the habit of playing loud music on her “boombox” portable audio player.

He commutes each day to the seminary with his friend and fellow seminary student, Hamid, who owns a pickup truck and supports himself by working as a free-lance “taxi trucker” (a common pursuit in Iranian big cities).  The contrast between the two is marked: Hamid is earthy and jocular while Seyyed is introverted and sensitive.  When they are driving in his truck, Hamid pleads with Seyyed to remove his amameh, because his clerical appearance will presumably scare away potential customers  – thereby alluding to the common apprehension that the mullahs interfere with the normal lives of the citizenry.

2.  A Tragic Situation Arises
Seyyed Reza’s home life is idyllic.  His wife Zahra is attractive, attentive, and totally devoted to her family. She also supports the family by spending time hand-weaving carpets at a loom in their apartment.  However, she starts suffering from episodes of double-vision, and then she finally collapses at home.  She is rushed to the hospital and held their for tests to be undertaken.  At the hospital a nurse named Sepideh looks scornfully at Seyyed’s clerical garments and ridicules him for probably having neglected his wife and not even having the guts to look her in the eye when they converse.  She derisively refers to him as an “akhund”, an old term for a mullah that modernists now often use to describe meddlesome, backward-thinking clergy.

The next day Seyyed learns from a rather detached, almost unfeeling, doctor that Zahra is probably suffering from multiple sclerosis (MS) a terminal degenerative disease that can lead to total paralysis. 

Seyyed is stunned by this news of his wife’s incurable condition and says to himself, “what will become of us?”  He now has to look after the two kids at home, a task for which he is totally unprepared.  He also has to take up the carpet-weaving work that Zahra had done.  Periodically he looks out of his window at the next door apartment and wonders what Ms. Azam’s life is like looking after her care-needy granddaughter. 

Still, he tries to attend his lectures.  Since he can’t find a babysitter for Amir, he has to take him to the seminary and listen from outside the classroom while holding the infant in his arms.   At one of these lectures, he hears the speaker say,
A kid was falling from the roof, and noone could do anything. One simple rural man who was there raised his head to the sky and said: “God, please save him by Yourself.” The kid stopped in the middle of the air.  People surrounded him and asked, “who are you?’ and “what miracle or power is it?” The old man was shocked.  He said,
“isn’t it normal? To whatever God told me, I said, ‘alright’. And whatever I tell God, God doesn’t say ‘no’”. 
He was just a simple rural man with no studies in philosophy. No knowledge of esoterism, nor a dervish of extreme austerity.  He just had done honestly everything he knew.
This is an example of some of the religious philosophy that underpins the story, and I will call this Sermon #1.  Here the lesson is for people not to engage in deep philosophical speculation; just do as you are told.

3.  Zahra at Home
Zahra is brought home, but she is crippled and miserable.  Crying out, she asks God to kill her so that she die with dignity.  Seyyed merely cautions her not to speak like that, because she will anger God.  After more of Zahra’s crying, Seyyed finally blows up at her.  He complains that her illness has interfered with his precious studies, “and you just whine”, he says. 
“You want to go [back] to Nishapur?  I take you tomorrow and leave you there.”
They do later make up, after Zahra apologises.  Gradually, though, Seyyed seems to be becoming more down-to-earth in connection with his interactions with Aida and others around him.

Later while Zahra is out walking on crutches, the haughty nurse Sepideh pays a personal visit to Seyyed. She had had some personal conversations with Zahra in the hospital and was emotionally affected by Zahra’s deteriorating condition. In particular, Sepideh was moved by Zahra’s belief that “there is happiness in appreciating the small things”. Before departing, Sepideh somewhat presumptiously instructs Seyyed to tell his wife that he loves her.

Back home, Zahra bravely suggests to Seyyed that the two kids will need a new mother to look after them. To her surprise and alarm, Seyyed answers that he has been thinking along the same lines.  When he detects her misgivings, Seyyed accuses her of being willing to leave him all alone to look after things.  Zahra acquiesces and can only glumly hope that the new wife will not be too glamorous.

4.  Conclusion
Seyyed has been diligently working on a hand-woven carpet that he has been contracted to supply. But he has trouble completing the task because of a worsening blurring condition in his own eyes. He delivers the carpet, but tells his contractor that he cannot continue with this kind of work for awhile.  He now has his own seriously deteriorating health problem to deal with.  So he decides to get away from it all for a bit and enlists Hamid to take his family to the countryside for a picnic.

On the outing Zahra invites Seyyed to read to her from the Quran like he used to. He obligingly picks up the Quran and, pretending to read what he cannot see because of his now blurred vision, apparently recites some lines from memory.  Then he tells her what Sepideh had instructed him to say: that he loves her.

In the final scene, Seyyed goes back to the seminary and listens from outside the classroom to another lecture (Sermon #2):
For a long time everyone has been looking for a key to heaven, a treasure or elixir.  They are searching for the secret to happiness in the wrong place. . . . The whole story can be summed up in one word [phrase]: call it a “key” or a “code”. . . . The Great God told Moses this code in one word.: Love for My sake, Hate for My sake.

When saying that the code for acceptance of all works is Velayat [the authority invested in the Prophet and the Ahl al-Bayt (his ordained representatives, such as the Imams)], it means that this loving is for God’s sake. It means whoever God loves, you love them, too. It means loving because of God, growing affection for God’s sake.  Not for superficial beauties, not even for your own heart. Just for God! . . . The more hardship you take for God, the higher your spiritual rank. 

“From the alchemy of love for Thee, my dusty face became glittering gold.  Yes, by the happiness of Thy grace, dust ought be gold.” (from poetry by Hafez)
With these words, the film ends, and we may take them as a final message for Seyyed Reza.  They are presumably presented to help Seyyed, and us, face life’s unfathomable mysteries.  In this connection I will offer three thematic lines of thought for your consideration:  


One might first think that the overall message of the film is just to love no matter what.  But I will argue here that love (at least the way I think of it [1]) is not the focus. Assadian may have intended to have the film's principal message be love, but that is not what comes across.  Seyyed is an honest, well-meaning, and gentle soul, but he is not filled with love. He is benign and dutiful, but detached. We never get the feeling that he truly loves Zahra and deeply feels for her. He is more concerned with how things affect himself.  Even at the end of the film when he tells Zahra that he loves her, he seems to be saying this because he should say it, not because it comes from his heart.  Further evidence that the film's answer and main theme is not just love is given in Sermon #2, when the lecturer intones that the special code is “Love for My Sake, Hate for My Sake”.  Hate has equal place with love in that phrase.  

Submission to Authority
No, the real message of the film seems to be that one should act according to how one has been instructed to act by the religious authorities.  Follow the basic rules, and don't try to make your own interpretations of the sacred texts. Don’t engage in abstract philosophical speculation (Sermon #1), and also don’t consult your own heart (Sermon #2: “not even for your own heart.”). Just do as you are told.  Thus “Love for My Sake, Hate for My Sake” does not mean to embrace all with love; it means to love and hate according to instructions. The more you do that, the more points will be added to your score and the higher will be your "spiritual rank". Admittedly, this idea of submission to religious authority is common to many religions and has its attractions for many people around the world [2,3]. At the end of the film, Seyyed is shown to be servilely arranging the sandals that have been left outside the lecture room. He is showing his submission.

Copper and Gold
The film’s title refers to the medieval notion that alchemy could be used to magically transform copper into gold if one used the proper elixir.  In Sermon #2 reference is made to the idea that the code is like a magical elixir that can metaphorically transform a dusty face into gold.  But how in the larger human context should we take the idea of gold and copper?  Gold is all glitter and decorative; but because it is a "noble metal" that doesn't interact with other materials, it stands apart. Copper is the opposite – its properties make it usefully part of our human engagement with the world.  Seyyed was seen by everyone to be headed in the direction of gold, a treasure. He is striving for his own spiritual perfection, but he is detached. On the other hand, Zahra (brilliantly portrayed by Negar Javaherian) was compassionately engaged with her family and the world.  She was evidently seen as copper.  She served and loved with all her heart in whatever she did.  Gold and copper: which one do you prefer?

  1. One might invoke the abstract love notion of agape, but I will not go into that here.
  2. See the article by Mark Lilla about Michel Houellebecq’s recent novel, Soumission, that concerns this attractiveness in a modern context:
  3. Michel Houellebecq, Soumission, (2015), Paris: Flammarion.

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