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Tehran's Naked City

In 'Crimson Gold,' director Jafar Panahi adds a sense of moral pain to American film noir theme

By Richard von Busack

PHENOMENAL as Iranian films have been lately, Jafar Panahi's Crimson Gold (Talaye sorkh) reaches a new level of harshness and beauty. One of the great strengths of Iranian cinema is its faith in the abilities of nonprofessional actors. That faith has paid off here.

Pahani's star is a Tehran pizza-delivery man named Hussein (Hussein Emadeddin). Hussein turns to crime but shows no aptitude for it, fatally losing his cool during a jewelry store heist. In flashback, we see what Hussein's life was like before his fate led him to this robbery. He had been trying to get married, but his mental and physical health stood in the way. He's unwell, with huge circles under his eyes, and he's bloated with cortisone. In real life, Emadeddin is a paranoid schizophrenic. According to Panahi, his star was subject to repeated delusions that the French separatist politician Le Pen was paying assassins to kill him. He's totally convincing as a spirit of the city, whether lying prone in his wretched apartment or riding his moped through Tehran.

The Iranian capital looks like a smoggier version of Los Angeles. The steel-colored sky diffuses the light. The photography is soft and lambent, but Crimson Gold's spirit is very close to film noir. Panahi implies class struggle in every encounter.

Hussein has gotten the wrong end of every stick for a long time. In this Tehran, a glacier of wealth is moving in, and the poor have to scatter. In the new, rich city center of Tehran, even the phoned-in pizza functions as a new symbol of affluence.

If Emadeddin resembles any actor, it's Raymond Burr during his film noir days. Watching him loom against a wall, swaddled in his clothes, I remembered the scene in which Burr steps out of the shadows of Jimmy Stewart's apartment in Rear Window, like a whale breaching though black water. Like Burr's Lars Thorwald, Emadeddin's Hussein is a sad, dead-faced hulk, huge but about as solid as cigar ash.

We can guess something from Hussein's health, his dialogue with an underage soldier (Saber Safael) and the military-surplus clothes he wears. This pizza man is probably a veteran, a victim of the Iranian version of Gulf War syndrome, or a casualty of exposure to Saddam's chemical weapons.

Hussein's failed robbery was triggered by an incident where the owner of the jewelry store had told him, as nicely as possible, that he ought to take his business elsewhere. But we can see that everything in Hussein's life led to the fatal robbery.

In one episode, he delivers pizzas to an illegal dance party where a cluster of arrogant army cops is lurking, waiting to arrest the party-goers for the high crime of drinking and having mixed female and male company. The cops order Hussein to stay put, and eventually he must give his congealing pizzas away.

Another of Hussein's customers might as well be one of the shah's grandchildren, a gilded kid of the old regime. The penthouse-dwelling rich boy (Pourang Nakhael) is an Americanized returnee to Iran; lured back to the old country by sentiment, he's stuck, lonely and baffled.

Panahi's handling of this sequence is squirmingly comic: the princeling's helpless patronization of Hussein, the delivery man's nonplussed reaction to a twinkling city nightscape, a vast refrigerator half the size of the room he lives in, an indoor pool with a preposterous fountain jetting away at the entryway.

Panahi has studiously modeled his film on Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. So many nihilists made Travis Bickle their hero and wore T-shirts picturing Robert De Niro with his Mohawk and his smirk. So many saw Scorsese's classic and harmonized with this madman who longed to be the rain that washes the scum off the streets.

But Crimson Gold is a different kind of movie. In interviews, Panahi has commented on the "pain" of hearing a news account of a bungled robbery that left two people dead, the incident that spurred Crimson Gold. The joke, and it's a joke on us, is that we've pretty much lost the sense of pain that Panahi is talking about. He is still connected to a moral tradition that holds society responsible for the fault of one lone killer. This director has no faith in our own American movie's tradition of the "cathartic act of violence."

One hundred years of psycho-analysis, and the world is not getting any saner, so the joke goes. In our cinema, we've seen decades of cathartic violence, and we're not getting any cleaner.

Crimson Gold (Unrated; 95 min.), directed by Jafar Panahi, written by Abbas Kiarostami, photographed by Hossain Jafarian and starring Hussein Emadeddin, opens Friday.

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From the March 24-31, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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