Alert the media -- Cinema exists beyond the horizons of the burger joint around the corner. American isolationism, more rampant now than ever, inevitably extends to the arts, and films from outside our borders, once upon a time reason to brave the lines in mainstream theaters, now die a quick death in one-week (if they're lucky enough to be picked up) arrangements at the art house. My beef is less with Hollywood movies (which can and do offer as much art as subtitled esoteria) than with the pervasive feeling of cultural superiority that allows reviewers to wax gloomy about the death of cinema while ignoring filmic advances from such supposedly unimportant entities as Iran, Korea, Taiwan and Thailand, just to name a few.
In fact, Iran in recent years has, with such diverse artists as Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Jafar Panahi, Dariush Mehrjui and Majid Majidi, created a film community with closer connections to its cultural roots and concerns than virtually anything we have right now. Pahani's Crimson Gold has finally docked from there, and it's easily one of the most impressive films so far this year, though, again, how much advertising have you heard on it? Its slow-burning turmoil may stem from the main character's troubled wavelength, but the project takes its shape from an impassioned indignation that is simultaneously specifically Iranian and universal. A nation's tensions are already evident in the stunning opening sequence, an agonizingly unbroken take documenting a jewelry heist gone wrong, with the inept culprit shuffling back and forth while a crowd gathers outside before turning the gun on the aged shop owner and then himself.
The shadow of the scene hangs over the rest of the film, as the narrative turns back to contemplate the motives behind the would-be criminal. Hussein (Hussein Emadeddin, a nonprofessional who is unforgettable) is an Iran-Iraq war vet gone bulky on cortisone treatment and now eking it out delivering pizzas around Tehran. A purse stolen by his chatterbox buddy (Kamyar Sheissi) provides him with the receipt for a pricey necklace, though his shabby appearance locks him out of the same jewelry store of the opener -- not the first or last of the class humiliations that make up Hussein's existence. Quietly boiling, he goes about his routine of climbing endless flights of stairs to serve the bourgeoisie and laying in his dingy tenement, where the people next door are getting hauled out into military trucks in the middle of the night.
Societal critique in Pahani's films (The White Balloon, The Mirror, The Circle) is usually tied to a female view of oppression, and there's a scene with Hussein stoically riding his bike after getting dissed yet again at the store while his gabby fiancée (Azita Rayeji) blames herself behind him that, while comic at heart, speaks volumes for the indoctrination of gender guilt. The movie's other notable auteur, however, is Abbas Kiarostami, doyen of Iranian cinema and writer of the fact-based screenplay, instilling Hussein's disgruntled brooder with the kind of serene anger and deep human dignity that have made Through the Olive Trees, A Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us such treasures of modern cinema. Playing Oliver Hardy to an unjust world, Hussein muddles through in a way that suggests a less psychotic Travis Bickle, though with just as trenchant an awareness of how urban inequity can bleed honesty into crime. (One indelible moment, barely five seconds long: riding the elevator during a delivery, he leans his head against the cool wall and closes his eyes for an instant.)
The character's sense of impassive rage churning within culminates not in the opening botched holdup, but in the extended sequence that precedes it. Delivering pizzas to a palatial apartment, Hussein gets invited in by the young owner (Pourang Nakhayi), a goateed neurotic who, just back from the U.S. and bitching over a vanished date, has plenty of dislocation of his own. While the rich kid, in need of an ear for his rants, jabbers with his puss glued to a cellular, Hussein wanders the luxurious penthouse, gets a shave, has a beer and takes a dip into the pool. The brief interlude suggests Giulietta Masina's dreamlike stay at the movie star's glamorous pad in Nights of Cabiria, with Fellini's wide-eyed satirical gaze replaced here with a thicker feeling of despair. The sequence widens rather than bridges the gulf between the two men -- despite the young aristocrat's (mostly self-centered) friendliness, witnessing the chasm that separates the classes by seeing the things he will never be able to have further solidifies Hussein's lumbering pain and fury.
Harsh yet fiercely humanistic, Crimson Gold has Pahani and Kiarostami, two of Iran's most sonorous artistic voices, connecting a country's pervasive sense of dread to its people's battered nobility. The film's rigorous dissection of milieu, class inequity and societal injustice (hardly Iranian exclusives) should touch nerves across borders, although, to judge from ongoing U.S. maneuvers in the area, learning anything from the Middle East is the last thing on the minds of a good deal of people in these allegedly enlightened grounds.