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.

A hulking, overstuffed sausage of a man, Hussein speaks in intermittent rumbles and walks as if numb; but for all that, he’s shrewd about people. He deplores his fiancée’s meekness, his future brother-in-law’s horniness (the young fellow can’t believe that in Hussein’s youth, women walked around with their hair showing and everything), his own slowness and corpulence. (The medicine he takes, evidently to treat a wartime trauma, has made him unrecognizable to himself.) Behind the drooping eyelids glints intelligence–damaged and outraged, but real–which saves Hussein from being merely a toy of the filmmakers. He’s also saved by another, more important quality: true generosity.

This authentic kindness comes to the fore in one of Crimson Gold‘s longest, most extraordinary scenes, in which Hussein attempts to deliver pizzas to a fashionable apartment building and is stopped by the vice squad. They’re staked out in the darkness, waiting to arrest guests leaving a party where liquor is being served and men are dancing with women. To prevent Hussein from warning these miscreants, the police chief orders him to park his motorbike and stand to one side. Hussein can’t make his delivery and he can’t leave–which makes him similar to a young cop he talks to (a bored 15-year-old with a rifle) who will be on duty until near dawn, and to a number of curbside detainees who had come to pick up partygoers and now are stuck in their cars, waiting for the arrests. The situation, in a way, is a mirror image of the opening scene: exterior instead of interior, nocturnal instead of daylit, with the silhouetted criminals being shown not in the foreground but at the rear of the shot. (They’re visible behind the shades of a second-story window, doing the frug.) The most important difference, though, is that here Hussein is not completely constrained. He can press for a little freedom of movement–and he uses it to hand out the undeliverable pizza to anyone who is hungry, cops and detainees alike.

Crimson Gold has scenes of even greater tension, pathos and outrageousness, but this one feels to me like the heart of the film. That’s partly because it culminates in an act of kindness, carried out by the character who can least afford the expense; but it’s also because the film’s meticulous control of themes and visual forms is carried out here with such apparent casualness. Everything seems to happen on its own, with open-air ease–including the performance by the lead actor, Hussein Emadeddin (in real life a pizza deliveryman), whose utterly natural demeanor in the role can have been achieved only through hours of painstaking work.

Not that you think about Emadeddin’s effort, or Panahi’s, when you’re watching the film. Crimson Gold conceals its considerable art. It wants only to draw you into its subject, so that you once more learn what you already knew about Hussein and his world. It’s mysterious, how we perpetually need reminding. It’s astonishing, how well Panahi and Kiarostami prompt us. In Crimson Gold, we keep sinking and sinking into a quicksand of recognition–which is merely to say, this is one powerfully absorbing movie.

The question of whether you notice the subject matter more than the filmmaking also comes up vividly in Monster, a fictionalized version of the life and crimes of Aileen Wuornos, which has gone into wide release after winning several critics’ prizes and award nominations. The praise has focused mainly on the film’s star and producer, Charlize Theron, an actress previously known mostly for her striking good looks, which she has brought to the skirt roles in such masterpieces as The Italian Job. Now, like Nicole Kidman in The Hours, she has uglied up in quest of respectability. Absolutely no one was prepared to see an overweight, thick-featured, evil-toothed Theron swagger through Florida’s lesbian and biker bars in a convincing impersonation of a $20-a-pop prostitute and multiple murderer.

This is not to belittle Theron’s accomplishment, or to suggest that Monster is in any way a pose-fest like The Hours. Written and directed by Patty Jenkins, the film plays so unaffectedly (by American standards) that you might almost think it’s Iranian. Disillusionment, in fact, is one of the movie’s framing themes, from the beginning voiceover (in which Wuornos recalls her girlhood dream of being discovered by a Hollywood talent scout, while the images show a grimy kid turning tricks) to the final shots of Wuornos walking into Florida’s death row, overlaid by a sardonic recitation of her favorite adages: believe in yourself, love conquers all, love will find a way. The journey between these two moments takes place in the American unpicturesque of crummy motels and bars, clogged truck routes and the occasional low-rent office (where Wuornos makes a doomed attempt to get a straight job). The only joyful sites in this landscape are its amusement parks and roller rinks. There, Wuornos snatches the few moments of happiness she will know, accompanied by her young lover Selby Wall (Christina Ricci).

Monster does not delve into some of the most maddeningly sordid aspects of the Wuornos case–for those, you’d have to consult Nick Broomfield’s devastating 1992 documentary Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer–but it’s still admirably direct. You get a strong dose of the humiliations and violence that were daily fare to Wuornos, and of the overwhelming need that Wall awoke in her. You also get a Wuornos who seems fully and miraculously alive, as if Theron by sheer willpower had made her nerve endings stretch through the prostheses and padding that encase her. Every emotion in this woman reads right on the skin, even when that surface is latex.

And yet, although she’s terrifyingly effective in the role, Theron is no Hussein Emadeddin. She unavoidably makes Monster into a movie about her triumph as an actress, almost as much as it’s about the horror of Wuornos’s life. In this way, the performance echoes Robert De Niro’s turn as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. One difference is, De Niro had been taken seriously even when he looked gorgeous. Theron, who clearly knows what she’s doing, apparently felt that an actress may not have such an option.

The other difference is, Jake LaMotta was as noble and heroic as he was monstrous. In choosing Aileen Wuornos as her vehicle to stardom, Theron went for a role of more lurid appeal, no matter how much empathy she brought to the part.

This, too, may have been a smart decision. It’s still possible for a woman to play well-grounded roles and look good in them, as Theron herself did in The Cider House Rules. But as she knows very well, audiences didn’t flock to see her in that picture. Something else may be needed in today’s Hollywood, if an actress wants the big crowds and great reviews.

Believe in yourself? Love conquers all? Theron seems to have learned the real motto for success in her business: Die, die, my darling.