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Blood money
Panahi crafts a gem in Crimson Gold
Crimson Gold
Directed by Jafar Panahi. Written by Abbas Kiarostami. With Hussein Emadeddin, Kamyar Sheissi, Azita Rayeji, Shahram Vaziri, Ehsan Amani, and Pourang Nakhayi. In Farsi with English subtitles. A Wellspring Films release (97 minutes). At the Kendall Square.

Some films have unhappy endings. Jafar Panahiís have unhappy beginnings that only get worse.

It was not always so. In The White Balloon (1995), a little girl wanted a goldfish. In The Mirror (1997), a little girl wanted to find her way home (to do so she finally calls attention to the imprisoning artifice, the mirror, of the filmmaking process itself). Some gentle stabs at social commentary, perhaps, but filtered through the deceptively innocent consciousness of childhood.

But then Panahi turned away from childish things in his next two films, both of which were banned in Iran. In The Circle (2000), the fate of women is shown to be variations on imprisonment that begin and end behind bars. Crimson Gold begins behind bars too: in a harrowing opening scene, a single shot from inside a dark jewelry store, a robbery goes awry. The culprit, a huge lump with his face covered in a pilot cap, goes about the crime as if in a trance. An alarm sounds, the shopís barred gate descends, and the robberís panicked accomplice flees on his Vespa.

The camera follows the accomplice through the streets of Tehran. Itís the beginning of the circle: Ali (Kamyar Sheissi) is the roly-poly talkaholic pal of fellow pizza-delivery man Hussein (Hussein Emadeddin, a Bressonian non-professional). Ali has just picked up a medical certificate so Hussein can marry his sister. Heís picked up something else as well: an abandoned purse containing lipstick and Mentos and the lingering scent of perfume. And a receipt for a necklace costing a fortune.

Itís Husseinís doom. Heís lured not so much by the unthinkable wealth thatís implied (the two never consider trying to cash it in; despite the insinuations of a con man who horns in on their conversation, they just wonder what such a thing might look like) as by the world of privilege, power, and pleasure that heís excluded from. Anyone else in his position might just shake it off (Ali tries to settle his friendís nerves by offering cigarettes and bogus advice). But Hussein, like Travis Bickle, has demons. A war veteran, swollen by cortisone and whatever other drugs heís administered for his unnamed wounds, heís "too sensitive."

What follows is a series of subtle and not so subtle snubs as Hussein stolidly goes about his deliveries. He recognizes one customer as a comrade from the front. The man is shocked by Husseinís transformation. ("You were a saint," he recalls. "I thought youíd gone to Heaven.") Then he gives Hussein a big tip and the bumís rush.

When our hero stops at a wealthy apartment building, heís detained by soldiers whoíve surrounded the place and are hauling off partygoers as they leave. Sitting with a teenage soldier, watching the silhouettes of the dancing revelers on the window shades, Hussein whimsically observes that heís stuck in a limbo between the moral authorities imposing their rules and the rich and frivolous having fun. In a touching, vaguely loaves-and-fishes gesture, he distributes his undelivered pizzas to the soldiers and the detainees; the rich people reject his gifts.

As played by Emadeddin, Hussein offers little resistance to these stings, the suffering soaked up by his bulk, his passive moon face. Occasionally he permits a glimpse within, as when he collapses on the bed in his mean apartment, his caged bird chirping away. Drawn to the jewelry store, he and Ali are at first not even allowed inside. When he and his fiancée return dressed like "rich people" to buy wedding jewelry, theyíre advised to go to the bazaar to buy gold that can be "quickly liquidated." Once outside, Hussein gasps for air, clawing at his tie. The scene is as excruciating as the heist that opens the film; Emadeddinís performance is a masterpiece of pathos, a paradigm of the disenfranchised Everyman.

For his part, Panahi never succumbs to glib didacticism. The chain of events unreels elliptically, elusively ó and often hilariously as well. Husseinís final stop takes him to a playboy recently repatriated from America; the manís date has gone awry, so he invites Hussein into his penthouse for company. Iranians are "perverse," he complains, and as he chatters away on his cell phone, Hussein tours his surroundings, drinks the manís whiskey, and plops into the pool.

Itís a baptism of sorts, or a rebirth, but only into awareness. Husseinís passivity and Panahiís detachment do not conceal their recognition that in the closed society that is this world, desire spells doom. The arousing perfume of freedom and joy leads only to entrapment, but it must be followed.

Issue Date: March 26 - April 1, 2004
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