Crimson Gold (2003); Director: Jafar Panahi

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Crimson Gold opens with a stick-up at a jewelry store. The camera is placed inside the dark store, and through its point of view we can see out onto the sunny street beyond. We see the little old jeweler come to unlock the door from the outside, we see the dark figure running up behind him, we see the flash of the gun as the jeweler is shoved inside, and then follows the stick-up, where the camera doesn’t move once. The jeweler is pleading and fighting, the thief telling him to shut up and get the jewels, but half the time they are out of frame. They crash around, things fall down, we hear their dialogue, and occasionally they pass by the camera, but most often, they are not seen. As the theft plays out, a group of curious people gather outside on the sidewalk. A chic woman in a blue headscarf had tried to get into the jewelry store, found it locked, and, peeking in, saw what was going on and began to freak out, calling for help. People gather. A shot is fired from within. Chaos erupts on the street. Everyone knows the jeweler, they start to call out for him by name. The thief never says a word. He remains a dark lumbering presence, and it isn’t until the final shot of the opening sequence when he, trapped in a situation he has started, stands with his back against the gate, his back against the crowd on the sidewalk, and holds the gun up to his temple.

It’s an outstanding opening, and one of the best parts of it is that it sets up an expectation of what kind of movie we are about to see (jewelry heists, down-on-his-luck guy trying to make one big score, all the cliches), and while some of those cliches are in place, because it’s Jafar Panahi directing (and the script is by Abbas Kiarostami) things don’t quite look or feel the way they are “supposed” to. I love a movie that can do that, without being too clever or pleased with itself. Crimson Gold is not messing with convention. It has no opinion about the conventions of jewelry-heist movies. Or if it does, it’s certainly not front and center.

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One of the dangers in talking about Jafar Panahi’s films is that you (the writer) can make it sound too earnest, missing entirely the feel and energy of the film. He’s serious, sure, but not too serious. He’s interested in other things entirely. So if I said: Crimson Gold is about the gap between the haves and have-nots in Tehran, you would be forgiven for suppressing a yawn and deciding to see another movie instead. But Panahi and Kiarostami, film geeks essentially, understand that cinema is a language, it is visual, and it is what one does with the pictures that tells the story.

And Crimson Gold is full of beautiful and strange pictures.

Hussein (the thief) is played by Hossain Emadeddin, a non-actor (this is his only credit), and Ebert mentions in his review that Emadeddin, in real life, is a paranoid schizophrenic. He doesn’t play one here, but there is something dead and abstract about his face that is compelling, making you wonder all along if something might be wrong with this guy. He is mainly wordless. He rides around Tehran on his motorbike. He lives in a dingy one-room apartment. He delivers pizzas. And, on the side, he is a pickpocket with his friend Ali (played by Kamyar Sheisi), and they strategize on how to pick women who clearly have money in their purses. There is a whole psychology behind it. Not that Hussein seems interested in psychology. He is engaged to be married to Ali’s sister. Ali is relieved. He was worried about his sister’s chances of finding a husband.

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All of this information is revealed in the early stages of the film, when it becomes clear that we are working backwards, to find out how it is that Hussein would end up with a gun to his head in a jewelry store. The two sit in a cafe talking, and an old man comes up to them and joins them. He gives them advice on thievery, a line he runs in too, and says that the best thiefs are the most honest. Don’t knock someone over for pocket change, or the thrill of it. The motivation behind your robbery is what separates the men from the boys.

My expectations were still that we were about to see a movie about robbery. Maybe the old man will become a mentor … maybe we will see the trial runs of big robberies … maybe one will be busted …

Crimson Gold doesn’t go any of these predictable ways, and as the film meanders on, we submit to its pace, we submit to its journey. We give up our own. So much of life is about giving up your idea of what it should be, and accepting the reality before you. This is true of the characters in Crimson Gold (everyone: from the girlfriend, to the old guy in the cafe, to the people Hussein meets along the way) and it is true of the audience as well.

There are two standout scenes. They are long. They are complex, with many elements, many characters. Kiarostami’s wicked wit and intelligence is here in spades. Throw out the rule-book. The opening jewelry-heist becomes a distant memory, and instead, we follow Hussein around on his delivery route, meeting different people along the way, and getting sucked into their various dramas.

The first standout scene takes place at a big fancy apartment building, and Hussein pulls up, with three pizzas to be delivered to the third floor. He is stopped at the front door by a cop, who tells him to go no further. Hussein lumpily argues. He is stubborn. “But I have pizzas to deliver.” “That’s none of your business. Just stand over there.” It turns out there is a stakeout on the street, with plainclothes policemen and soldiers hanging out in all the bushes, and waiting in parked cars. There is a party going on on the third floor, you can hear the music pounding from above, and the cops are waiting for the partygoers to emerge, so they can haul them off to jail one by one. The cops won’t let Hussein leave. He is now a witness, and may be important later. He is forced to stand against a wall and wait.

The scene unfolds, and each time you think it might be over, it unfolds some more. It takes surprising dips and alleys, it arrives at dead-ends, and then backs up and tried another way. The street is dark and shadowed, and the buildings have a greenish tinge from the streetlamps. It is beautifully shot, with Panahi’s detailed eye for urban settings and strange beauty found in ordinary things. Kiarostami’s script is incredible, too. A veiled woman drives up and tries to enter the building. The police stop her. She says that her daughter had called for her to come pick her up. The police try to make her phone up there on her cell phone and tell her daughter to come down. She refuses. She is told to sit in her car and wait. A couple drive up and get out, and the cops swarm around them. They haven’t even said where they are going, perhaps they live on a different floor of the building, but the cops pull on them, demanding to know what they are doing. The couple fights back. (Everyone in the movie fights back, a little nod to the resilience of the Iranian people in the face of such nonsense.) “We haven’t even gone in yet …” The woman exclaims, “We’re married!” A cop snorts, “What kind of a man goes out with his wife?” This is not said ironically, or as a joke. This is a serious sentiment, and opens up worlds of understanding of the sexual and moral culture of the place (explored in other Iranian films about marriage, like Hemlock, and Fireworks Wednesday, and The Day I Became a Woman.) These two HAVE to be up to no good, because what kind of a man goes out with his wife to a party? Kiarostami doesn’t linger on this, though. All of this is shot from Hussein’s point of view, waiting across the street, and looking on. Two young girls, chattering on their cell phones, emerge from the party and are hauled off to the waiting police van. The scene has to be about 20 minutes long.

Hussein doesn’t have much to say during all of this, but he does strike up a conversation with a young soldier standing nearby. The soldier barely looks like he shaves yet. Hussein notices this and asks him how old he is. The soldier confesses he is 15. His brother died in “the war” (there’s only one war to this generation of Iranians). We already know that Hussein is a veteran of that war, and he takes some kind of medication, it is never said what, but it has made him heavy and sluggish. The war hangs over this scene, its long memory, its reach. Hussein looks up at the window where the party is going on. The curtains are drawn, but you can see people dancing and whooping it up behind. The music is techno-pop with an Iranian flair. One woman who emerges and is immediately hauled off, protests: “There was a wedding – this is a family gathering.” No matter. Men, women, dancing together? Alcohol probably? Hussein and the young soldier stare up at the gyrating silhouettes. Hussein asks the young boy, “Have you ever danced with a girl?” The young boy shakes his head no.

The streets are in shadow, long and green and murky, with one blinding red neon sign at the end of the alley. It is startlingly beautiful, yet disturbing as well. It has the feel of a hospital, or a prison, those institutional colors. Hussein knows he is going to be in trouble with his job, but he has three pizzas on the back of his motorbike, and it would be a shame to let them go to waste, so he offers a piece to the young soldier. The soldier refuses. Hussein thinks a bit, silently, and then walks over to the parked car where the police sergeant, walkie-talkie in hand, sits, and he offers him a piece of pizza. The sergeant tells him to go back against the wall like he is told. Hussein insists. “The pizza will go to waste. If you have a piece, then the others won’t be afraid to have a piece. Come on.” It is the most he has said in the entire film.

The sergeant gives in, he’s hungry, and grabs some slices of pizza, which then embolden the others, who will probably be on this stakeout until dawn. Even the waiting veiled mother in the car takes a slice.

I have just described the action of the scene, but that can’t begin to convey the slow creeping effectiveness of it, the dark colors, the sudden spurts of alarmed dialogue as the cops arrest yet another person, and above it all, the throbbing pounding Western music, seen as so threatening and yet so enticing.

The second standout scene is when Hussein delivers pizza to a penthouse apartment. A young slick guy in a tie answers the door. He is played by Pourang Nakhael, and it’s rather amazing to me that this is his only credit, another testament to Jafar Panahi’s well-known gift of working with non-actors. The slick guy is annoyed. He had ordered the pizzas because he had a girl over, he informed Hussein, but now the girl (and her tagalong friend) is gone, and he has no use for the pizzas anymore. He’s more annoyed that he has been blown off by this girl. Hussein is impervious to such sophisticated problems. His character reminded me a lot of Victor, played by Pruitt Taylor Vince, in James Mangold’s underrated film Heavy. Dominated and underestimated by others, mainly because of his weight, he has learned to suppress his desires, and his more unsavory feelings, like rage or insecurity. He seems passive. As Victor seems passive, overrun by his unbearable mother (played awesomely by Shelley Winters), and hopelessly in love with the beautiful new girl at the pizza place where he works (another interesting parallel with Crimson Gold). Both characters, Victor and Hussein, are in service jobs. They have to bite down their pride and their feeling that they deserve more … because, perhaps, they have been mocked their whole lives. For being ugly, for being weird, whatever. And nobody wants to know that their pizza delivery guy has feelings, or a life.

Again, Kiarostami messes with our expectations of what the scene will be. We are led to think that it will be a short scene, a quick glimpse into an unheard-of world of echoey penthouses and guys with money to burn and girls who come over to … do what, exactly? The slick rich guy doesn’t want to pay for the pizzas, because it was the girls’ idea anyway, but Hussein remains immovable, a dark stolid force, and so the rich guy goes to get the money. Hussein slowly peeks through the door. We see a wide white staircase, like the one in Notorious. We see gold leaf. We see Greek statues in little niches in the walls. Up until this point in the film, we are obviously aware that rich people exist, but since we are only in Hussein’s small circle, we don’t actually see how the better half lives. So the short glimpse we get, the wide black windows high high up, staring out at the glittering vast sprawl of Tehran, has a deep impact. It’s devastating, actually.

One of the most boring things to do in life is to bitch and complain about not having enough money. It is not rich people’s fault that they are fortunate. As a matter of fact, more often than not, their wealth comes from hard work and commitment. They have earned it. However, we are all only human, and by that point in the story of Crimson Gold, we feel that Hussein has perhaps earned the right to at least have a moment of thinking, “Dang. It’s so unfair.”

But that’s just a projection. We don’t know what Hussein thinks. We don’t need to. Panahi, with the slow pan across that astounding room, tells us all we need to know.

Then: the scene takes a turn. The rich guy invites Hussein to come in and share the pizzas with him. Why not? The whole evening was a bust anyway. He had obviously hoped to get laid, or at least get something, and now what was he going to do? Hussein resists at first, but the rich guy is insistent, and finally, Hussein enters. What follows, a long scene between the two men, is not at all what you would imagine or conceive of – only Kiarostami could do it – and as they eat and talk, and the rich guy (who is about Hussein’s age) complains about how “crazy” the country is (he grew up in the States and then got homesick, coming back to inhabit his parents’ insanely palatial apartment), and offers Hussein liquor, and complains about the girl who came over, and complains about a lot of things, actually. There are many indictments of Iranian culture here, but since it is put into the mouth of this vaguely unsavory poor-little-rich-boy, the edge is taken off. Maybe he’s complaining too much, I thought. But the knife of criticism is there, and yet another reason why Panahi so often gets into trouble.

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The penthouse apartment that Panahi found is one of the most incredible sets I’ve ever seen in an Iranian film. It’s three or four floors, with a huge roof-deck, a crazy swimming pool with posing black Greek statues, a grand piano, a strange empty room filled with red-and-white striped plush chairs (it looks like a conference room in a hotel), a full gym with weight machines and treadmills, a stainless steel giant refrigerator filled to the gills with liquor, a huge empty room containing only a Persian rug and a flat-screen TV as large as a cineplex movie screen … It is a creepy empty house, screaming “nouveau riche”, with no taste, no personality, just an accumulation of objects, unused, there for show.

It is alienating to the extreme. Hussein and the rich guy sit at the table, eating pizza, and smoking. The girl who had just left had apparently gotten her period in the rich guy’s bathroom, leaving some blood splattered on the floor (calling to mind the horrifying scene from Neal Labute’s Your Friends and Neighbors, with Jason Patrick freaking out on this girl because she dared to bleed on his sheets – awful. Awful.), and the rich guy is incensed at the blood on his pristine floor. It seems to him indicative of how “insane” Iran is. “You people don’t know how to deal with a simple biological problem…” he fumes as he cleans it up.

Part of the joy of this film is, as I mentioned, succumbing to where IT wants to go, and letting go of the feeling that “shouldn’t we be moving on now?” Sometimes, yes, it is good to “move on”, but Crimson Gold is not about its plot. It is about the lonely people you meet in the night, the sudden moments of connection (or disconnection), and the vast abyss between what you want and what you have. The rich guy, naturally, has no respect for his wealth, although he uses it for all its worth. But he thinks Iran is crazy, and all the men there are crazy, and the women even crazier, and why can’t people just relax and have a nice glass of wine without all this … this … craziness?

It reminded me of the section in Marjane Satrapi’s graphic autobiographical novel Persepolis, when she returns to Iran in her late teens, after having lived abroad for a bit, and how strange it was, how alienating … to have been free (even unsafely so, with sex and drugs and all of the “freedoms” of the West), and then to come back to a place that is obsessed with sex, to an unhealthy degree, OBSESSED … which creates a warped culture where relationship and “ambiance” (as the rich guy says to Hussein) are impossible. “I don’t drink to get drunk, like all you Iranian lunatics,” says the rich guy – “I need ambiance, a sense of occasion …”

Kiarostami is quite pointed here. It gives the scene real bite.

Hussein wanders through the house, touching things, staring at the excess, and even jumps in the pool at one point, fully clothed.

So how is it then that Hussein, lumpy pizza delivery guy, ends up in the jewelry store holding a gun to his own head?

The strange sneaking power of Crimson Gold is that its structure moves you quickly away from that violent opening, so that you are lulled into forgetting it. Panahi’s signature shots of cars zipping through the freeways around Tehran, Hussein and Ali on his motorbike, careening in and out of traffic, carry us far far away, immediately, from what we know the outcome of the picture will be.

Context is key. By the end of the film, it is not that we know why he did it. We can guess why. The reasons and motivations are all there. It is that we have spent enough time with this man that we feel the loss. The loss of this good man. 3/4 of the way through, I remembered where we were going in Crimson Gold, I remembered that opener, and because the pace of the film, after that fevered beginning, is so slow and deliberate, we have time to mourn. We have time to realize a loss. This is Panahi’s true gift. None of this is accidental.

I don’t even know why I love Hussein, he is not a particularly lovable character, although I suspect it has something to do with the fact that he made the sergeant eat the piece of pizza first.

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