Crimson Gold


Posted to on October 2, 2004


Although Iranian films have a reputation--perhaps undeserved--for the kind of wistful detachment found in Ingmar Bergman, "Crimson Gold" is an unflinching look at the stark class divisions that mark contemporary Iran. It owes a lot to Italian neo-realism and also suggests why frustrations with the status quo have erupted into well-publicized street demonstrations.


"Crimson Gold" is directed by Jafar Panahi, who also directed the very fine "White Balloon" in 1995. "White Balloon" is a more typical Iranian film, focused on the efforts of a seven year old girl to track down an exceptionally plump goldfish for a New Year's Day celebration. Both "Crimson Gold" and "White Balloon" were written by Abbas Kiarostami, who also directs his own films. Since Kiarostami's reputation is based on films with a private vision, I was surprised to see such a biting criticism of class inequality in Iran today.


"Crimson Gold" tells the story of Hussein (Hussein Emadeddin), a lumbering, overweight and impassive man in his 30s who delivers pizzas on a motorcycle in Tehran. He is a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war and has a medical condition--presumably war-related--that requires him to take cortisone, which accounts for the weight gain. He lives in a grimy one-room flat and seems to take pleasure in nothing, not even in the prospective marriage to the attractive sister of his best friend Ali (Kamyar Sheisi), a fellow pizza deliverer.


Ali is also a petty thief who has talked Hussein into being his getaway driver. In the opening scene, they sit in a tea shop going through the contents of a stolen purse. When they discover a receipt for a valuable bracelet, they go to the jewelry store along with Hussein's fiancée with divergent motives. Ali is interested in casing it for a future robbery, while Hussein is more interested in buying a necklace for his future bride. In their shabby clothes, Hussein and his companions are treated as riffraff by the jewelry shop owner who invites them to go shop in Tehran's slums. The rebuff is so upsetting to Hussein that he collapses into a cold sweat outside the store.


Although Hussein never articulates his feelings, we can see Tehran through his sorrowful eyes. One night on his way to a pizza delivery, he is accosted by cops and soldiers at the front door, who tell him to wait there until their operation is finished. They are lying in wait for affluent people going to a party on the third floor where alcohol is being served and where unmarried couples are dancing. This is against the law in the Islamic republic. The cops have no regard for Hussein, who will not be paid and who will have to wait until the early hours of the morning to leave the scene. He strikes up a conversation with a fifteen year old soldier from the countryside who has lied about his age in order to find a job in the army. The entire scene is a paradigm of the brutal class realities of contemporary Iran and practically a cry for sweeping change.


On another delivery, he is welcomed into the opulent mansion of a young man who has just returned to Iran because of homesickness. Now that he has returned to live with his mother and father, he can only complain that "everybody is a lunatic" in Iran. As the young man paces around his mansion on the telephone trying to cajole a woman to come spend the night with him, Hussein wanders about the rooms in what we understand to be astonishment at the extravagant life-style.


The accumulated injuries of class finally drive him to join Ali in a abortive robbery on the jewelry store they had visited earlier. Panahi and Kiarostami are really not interested in a crime story, however. The scene not only takes place in less than a minute, it is foreshadowed at the beginning of the film so that when it happens, you are not really surprised.


Panahi told the Guardian (9/2/2003): "Take any human being and you find that his situation is a direct result of his family, his education, his economic position." "Crimson Gold" has been banned for obvious reasons in Iran.


In one of the more daring casting choices in the history of film, Panahi cast a real-life pizza delivery-man who suffers from schizophrenia in the role of Hussein. This gives the character's brooding inwardness a reality that might have been difficult for another actor to achieve. Panahi said, "We knew he was a schizophrenic in advance, so we knew he would be difficult to work with. But I had no idea that it was going to be that difficult. On several occasions I was tempted to stop shooting and simply abandon the entire project."


Panahi has not only run into trouble with the Iranian authorities. He has become part of the legion of artists and writers who have run afoul of stringent travel codes set up by the INS in the wake of 9/11. Last year he refused to attend the New York Film Festival because the new security requirement of fingerprinting Iranian nationals offended him. This is the letter he wrote to Richard Peña, the festival's director:


August 5, 2003

Richard Pena

Program Director

New York Film Festival



Dear Richard:


I must thank you for selecting my film, Crimson Gold, for the prestigious New York Film Festival, and for all your tremendous efforts over the last decade to introduce Iranian cinema to American people. But I must apologize for not being able to attend the festival due to the fingerprinting requirement for Iranian nationals.


We live in strange times. It’s not just George Bush who subscribes to the idea that you are either with us or against us. In my country, too, anyone slightly crossing any red lines is subject to the suspicion of the censors who label him as being alienated, self-loathing, mercenary, infiltrator, enemy agent, and even heretic. Here, they interrogate me because I am a socially conscious filmmaker. In America, they fingerprint me, and literally shackle me to kill my national pride, because I am an Iranian filmmaker. This is the kind of purgatory I, and many others like me, find ourselves in.


Dear Richard, I have no doubt you understand why I do not wish to subject myself to a humiliating treatment upon arriving in America. I am sure you understand why I refuse to compromise my beliefs, as a filmmaker and a human being, anywhere inside or outside of Iran.




Jafar Panahi



("Crimson Gold" is now available in DVD/Video and highly recommended.)