About a third of the way through the long, long flashback that is Crimson Gold, someone mentions that the main character, Hussein, needs to work outdoors because of his claustrophobia. It’s a throwaway comment–but like every other detail that’s doled out in the film, it makes your stomach drop, as if the quicksand around you had given way another inch. Why hadn’t you seen from the start that Hussein couldn’t bear confinement? It should have been obvious from the first scene–the one where he died by his own hand, having botched the robbery of a jewelry store.
You think back to that beginning, or rather end, which was played out in a narrow, darkened space defined on the far side by a barred security gate and on the near side by the awkward, blubbery silhouette of Hussein himself. For something like four minutes, or eternity, this opening shot of Crimson Gold had kept you trapped with Hussein, by Hussein, while the camera’s sole movement was a slow push forward, squeezing the lens toward the body, the body toward the bars. At last the only air left was outside, in an unattainable little slice of the Tehran streets. People on the sidewalk were milling about and shouting, since the store’s owner (unseen by you) was already dead on the floor. Then, at the moment of maximum compression, Hussein’s ski mask came off; his hand lifted toward the shadowed head, holding a pistol.
So–Hussein had been claustrophobic! If you think of Crimson Gold as a series of explanations for a desperate crime, then you might dismiss the film (wrongly, I think) as just another late-neorealist weepie: the portrait of an abject prisoner of circumstance. But it seems to me that the movie is concerned both with the shackles on Hussein and with the freedom of the more affluent people around him, audience members included. The deeper mystery of the film–for which Crimson Gold offers no easy solution–is that every new piece of information we get about Hussein turns out to be something we might have known.
Directed by Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon, The Circle) from a screenplay by Abbas Kiarostami, Crimson Gold is full of characters who think they understand Hussein, and who are never so insultingly wrong as when they pretend to be generous to him. A con artist in a cafe invites himself to Hussein’s table and grandly puts the order onto his own tab–picking up the cost of one whole cup of tea–while addressing him as a fellow thief. (In fact, the fortyish Hussein has a job delivering pizzas.) A client in a fourth-floor walk-up–someone who turns out to have served with Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war–calls the deliveryman a saint, then tips under 3 percent and shoos him from the door. Another client, a wealthy young man who has spent time in America and despises Tehran, plays the unpretentious democrat with Hussein, inviting him into his apartment to share the pizza and then, preoccupied and indifferent, leaving him to wander alone through the vast, gilded triplex (no chance of claustrophobia here).
Then there’s Mr. Vaziri, owner of a jewelry shop in the chic district, whose charity toward Hussein proves fatal. In the kindest, most sincere tones possible, the elderly jeweler advises Hussein and his fiancée to go down to the souk and buy some nice, locally fashioned gold, rather than attempt to purchase his fancy stuff. When Hussein zooms away on his motorbike into the thick traffic that is so common in Iranian cinema, he is furious both with Vaziri and with the fiancée, who clings to his back and keeps apologizing as if she’d done something wrong.