This is an unusual Iranian film in that, unlike most of the recent imports from that country, it’s neither a story of struggling children nor a tale of women fighting oppression. Instead it’s a decidedly minimalist piece about a pizza deliveryman who snaps under the strain of a host of minor humiliations, attempts to rob a jeweler who’s failed to show him the proper respect, and kills himself after shooting the storekeeper. Though “Crimson Gold” runs barely an hour and a half, it seems longer, since Jafar Panahi portrays his protagonist’s misery by playing out his experiences in what seems almost real time to emphasize their dehumanizing, debilitating quality. It’s a technique similar to the one that Gus Van Sant used to such extraordinary effect in his two films of last year, “Gerry” and “Elephant.” But in the present instance it doesn’t carry equivalent power. That’s because unlike Van Sant, Panahi eschews any hint of the poetic. He chooses instead to stage his film in a very simple, almost desultory style, aiming one supposes for an artlessness than conceals art but, in this case, often concealing it all too well.
That isn’t to say that “Crimson Gold”–the title refers to a kind of alloy used in modestly-priced jewelry that’s among the items offered to the protagonist and his wife-to-be–doesn’t have solid virtues. Hussein Emadeddin, who plays the delivery man, convincingly captures the man’s somewhat ursine qualities, which obscure the rage churning inside him under an ostensibly calm, if gruff, exterior. Some of the details that Panahi fashions to portray the small brutalities of life in contemporary Iran–an opening conversation with a shady fellow in a coffee shop, an extended sequence in which Hussein is kept waiting outside a building while police systematically round up partygoers involved in activities apparently prohibited by the law–are very effectively drawn. So too are the episodes in the fatal jewelry shop–not only that in which Hussein feels insulted by the owner’s condescending attitude, but the robbery scene that bookends the picture, shot (with a rare touch of cinematic affectation) with a static camera that remains stationary while the action veers on and off the screen. Elsewhere, though, the script by Abbas Kiarostami (himself a director whose work some people admire), doesn’t entirely convince, particularly in the elaborate penultimate sequence in which Hussein is invited into a posh apartment by a wealthy young man who’s lonely and looking for companionship of any sort. The episode is obviously intended to dramatize the sharp division that exists in contemporary Iranian society between haves and have-nots–a disparity which, it’s suggested, results in greater and greater alienation and can spark the sort of “inexplicable” violence with which Hussein explodes–but it’s not dramatized credibly enough to serve the purpose.
Even at only 95 minutes, “Crimson Gold” isn’t an easy film to sit through. Its deliberate, repetitive approach will tax the patience of many viewers, and its stylistic simplicity insures that, though it basically shares the theme of “Taxi Driver,” it doesn’t match the level of excitement that picture achieved through Martin Scorsese’s kinetic filmmaking. (Hussein is hardly Travis Bickle, either.) Nonetheless, though it sometimes seems as plodding as its burly protagonist, as a critical observation on the inequities of today’s Iranian society and the psychological damage they can cause, “Crimson Gold” is an intriguing, if imperfect, piece of work.