Imagine a glittering gold necklace lying on a black velvet cushion in a jeweler's display case, a spot of light isolating it from other precious adornments nestled nearby. Draw closer and the imbrication becomes clear, the deep furrows and beveled edges that give the necklace its peculiar splendor. Imagine those indentations pooled with blood, a "crimson gold." That singular, sanguinary close-up, that you will not see in Jafar Panahi's new film, would tell the entire story, which begins when a demimonde ex-soldier is thrust into the factitious world of Tehran's upper class. Like Panahi's The Circle, Crimson Gold, a Jury Award winner in Cannes 2003's Un Certain Regard, defiantly identifies the perfidiousness of practices--based on Muslim law--which criminalize the behavior of those they have already disenfranchised.
Hussein, Panahi's lumbering protagonist, is a pizza deliveryman who cannot endure confinement. His motorcycle, on which each evening he attaches a box to carry the pizzas, is the chariot of what little sanity he still possesses. He and his best friend Ali often travel around the city on it, Ali spotting attractive women, and Hussein quietly observing Tehran's disparate neighborhoods. Partners in crime--they filch women's pocketbooks--Hussein and Ali are abject and voluble. When they discover a receipt for a valuable necklace in one of the handbags, they decide to visit the shop but are turned away at the door. While Ali philosophically accepts the social and economic divisions that the slight is proof of, Hussein becomes obsessed by it and increasingly conscious of the inequities the encounter represents. Delivering pizza to Tehran's wealthiest districts, he spies through open doors the lifestyle he will never have. One night, he is invited into a palatial apartment by a customer whose girlfriend has deserted him, and there he sees Tehran for the first time from a rooftop garden. It glistens, but that view, like the sparkling gems he admires in the jewelry store, are beyond his reach.
In a Bressonian coup de ma--tre, Panahi empties his story of its portent by beginning with a bloodless depiction of the crime Hussein will commit, thereby highlighting (as Robert Bresson does) the devastating process of inanition his character experiences, rather than the act of desperation that will identify him to the world. The tableau sequence marks a turning point in Panahi's work, which has become increasingly abstract with each new film. In a small but astonishingly accomplished oeuvre„his first two films, The White Balloon and The Mirror, centered on girls, and the third, The Circle, on the plight of Iranian women--Panahi takes his place, with Crimson Gold, in the pantheon of Iranian filmmakers, a member of the "Third Wave" that includes Academy Award nominee Majid Majidi (Children of Heaven).
Not an overtly political filmmaker, Panahi's intense and intimate portrayals of people trapped, like Hussein, behind visible and invisible barriers are oblique but nevertheless scathing commentaries on Iranian society. We never learn why Hussein, who takes large doses of cortisone, is claustrophobic, or how he came to be a pizza deliveryman after his stint as an army communications officer. The horrors are only to be guessed at, just as the "crimes" of the former women prisoners in The Circle are barely inferred. Our imaginations conjure the desperation and despair of Panahi's characters far more completely than the camera could ever chronicle them. There is no need to see the crimson gold, only to experience the evanescent quality of human existence or, as Bresson wrote, "to translate the invisible wind by the water it sculpts in passing."