Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 10 July 2004
Source 35mm print, screened at the New York Film Festival
These are interesting times for Iran. While Shirin Ebadi has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts toward democracy and human rights, pressure descends from the international community for the government to come clean about its nuclear weapons capability.
To most observers in the West, Iran remains inscrutable, even intimidating. But thanks in some part to Mohammad Khatami’s reformist administration and the relaxation of the country’s censorship codes, the world is still afforded a window on Iran through its distinctive national cinema. Filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen and Samira Makhmalbaf, Majid Majidi, and Jafar Panahi have offered a more complete, more intimate, and indeed more human portrait of the country.
In their collaborations and individual films, Panahi and Kiarostami have depicted Iran in a sympathetic but unvarnished light in a collective body of work notable for its steady, unglamorous technique and attention to the mundanity of Iranian life. In their last film together, The Circle (with Panahi as director and Kiarostami as screenwriter), they confronted issues of concern, no doubt, to Ms. Ebadi: abortion, prostitution, and the rights of women. In Crimson Gold, their most recent collaboration, they avoid such controversies, and depict a vision of working class Iran without embellishment or sentimentality.
Crimson Gold begins, inauspiciously enough, with a bungled robbery that results in the death of two men. It is the type of senseless criminal act that might be noted in any newspaper in the world and has been dramatized in countless films: a large, burly figure of a man attempts to hold up a jewelry store, an alarm is triggered, the potential thief shoots the store’s owner, then himself. Upon displaying this event the film then leaps backwards in time to discover why such a thing might happen.
Here, a comparison could be made to Taxi Driver; both films follow the strange, itinerant lives of lonely characters and the events that lead them to commit desperate, violent acts. In this case the protagonist is also a serviceman (a pizza deliveryman), riding his motorcycle through the chaotic traffic of Tehran. As with Travis Bickle, Hussein Emadeddin’s story is told as a series of odd, seemingly disconnected episodes of urban life. He too is a veteran of a war — Iran-Iraq — and there is a similar sense that Hussein, like Travis, is a used and neglected serviceman, not fully recovered from his experience in war. But whereas the DeNiro character is spurred to violence by a delusional sense of justice and purpose, Hussein’s motivation is simply that he is poor. His desperate act is not the product of a mounting hysteria but a final expression of his disillusionment.
Hussein’s poverty is not emphasized for sentimental effect, however. In each of their films Panahi and Kiarostami work with a method of restraint, an obtuse, yet sympathetic realism. Their films about children (Panahi’s first film, The White Balloon, and Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s Home?, among others) effectively balance pathos with an intelligent sensibility, investing with significance stories that could easily devolve into mawkishness. (Majid Majidi’s films about children, such as The Children of Heaven, sometimes fall prey to this sentimentalism). Similarly, in Crimson Gold, Panahi resists sentimentalizing his subject matter by offering us a protagonist who yields no emotion. Hussein is obese, lumbering, and completely affectless, and he remains an enigma throughout the film. We are told that many people enjoy his company, even though he rarely speaks and almost never reacts with any discernible emotion. His interactions with his only friend, Ali, and his fiancée are almost entirely one-sided. He is not antagonistic but rather clearly disinterested or incapable of revealing his emotions to those close to him. He explains to one character that, since the war, he has been on a regimen of cortisone treatment, and this seems to partly account for his physical and emotional numbness. Indeed, in spite of his consistently deadpan expression, the viewer may start to like Hussein during the course of the film, but Panahi is careful to allow us only sparing glimpses into his personality through a series of disjointed episodes.
On his pizza deliveries Hussein becomes a reluctant eavesdropper into the lives of his bourgeois clientele, whose taste for parties, drinking, and Western luxuries (the pizza delivery being a prime example) often conflicts with the laws of an Islamist state where unmarried couples live in fear of the police. Caught between an oppressive social order and an unforgiving class system, Hussein endures disdain from all sides. And although he barely sounds a note of dissatisfaction, we can intuit his stony silence as his forbearance of the world’s condescension.
It is important to note, however, that none of the episodes and their minor humiliations, significant though they are, completely satisfies the audience’s curiosity about Hussein’s character. Panahi is careful to let these scenes remain equivocal, and though they are all clearly factors in Hussein’s desperation, they represent only single facets of his personality. As with Travis Bickle, no single event is the cause for the final events of the film, it is an accumulation of degrading circumstances.
Also, such humiliations counter the tender aspect of Hussein’s personality. His sensitivity is evident in his generosity to others, as when he offers his pizza delivery to a group of hungry soldiers who are staking out a party for unmarried couples. When we finally get a brief glimpse of Hussein’s apartment, we see and hear the mina birds that he keeps. In the darkness of his apartment, we also see him fumbling with a white purse, a gift for his fiancée. It is a modest gift, not equal to the jewelry that he cannot afford, but a token of apology, perhaps, for his reluctance to talk to her or to offer even the slightest affirmation of their relationship. Here, the film comes closest to implying that Hussein is sentimental and tender under his burly, implacable façade. The scene, however, is shot in the almost complete blackness of his apartment, and characteristically Hussein betrays no expression of emotion.
Each of the films of both Panahi and Kiarostami is told in this way, as a series of events, all mundane and seemingly random, that steadily coheres into a single, multifaceted image by the film’s end. The White Balloon, for example, closes with an effortless, but almost cosmic image that demonstrates a profound interconnectedness. Crimson Gold, too, builds to a revelatory final moment, where all of the quotidian circumstance of the film attains an aura of brilliance. On a routine delivery, Hussein is invited into a young man’s enormous luxury apartment to share his pizza. As the young man blathers to him about Iranian girls, America, and the “sickness” of Tehran (more shades of Taxi Driver, but quite differently presented), Hussein avails himself of the young man’s plush carpeting, expensive toiletries, swimming pool, and whiskey. He wanders around this small palace as through a dream of all of his unattainable earthly desires, and gradually the film’s solid realism melts into something more beautiful, more absurd than what has come before. Awakened from this dream, we are abruptly returned to the violence of the opening sequence.
What the filmmakers of Crimson Gold offer is cinema in a strictly observational mode. In this way, Panahi’s style is not unlike that of Yasujiro Ozu. Both filmmakers eschew the intimacy of the close-up in favor of detached, watchful wide compositions. For Panahi, as for Ozu, the camera can only usefully capture a surface reality. The inner world of the characters remains remote to us; we know of it only what we can observe. We see of Hussein only what other characters might see, rarely privileged with even a hint of feeling or desire. Like his fiancée, to whom he refuses to reveal himself, we are shut out of Hussein’s emotional world and struggle vainly to make sense of it from the outside.
The observational mode of the storytelling is exemplified by the prolonged, static shots that mark the work of both Panahi and Kiarostami. Patient and unobtrusive, these shots tend to be long takes that sit at a dispassionate distance, rarely panning or zooming to follow the action on- or off-screen. One of the last shots of The White Balloon is an example of this: the camera watches from a safe distance as the many, seemingly random threads of the story weave together slowly, in one dramatic sequence. And in the opening sequence of Crimson Gold, the camera again sits back from the action, taking in the scene of the robbery in one long, static take. Only at the end of this scene does the camera make a slow track forward in order to capture Hussein’s face, tired and exasperated, as he decides to shoot himself.