I'm pretty sure I've never seen an Iranian film that opened with gun shots -- or closed with them, for that matter. But with Crimson Gold, his fourth film to be released in the U.S., Jafar Panahi continues to break new ground in the depiction of life under the imams. Not that there are any imams running around in Crimson Gold; within government restrictions, the movie's quite secular. But it's the way Panahi keeps pressing against those government restrictions that makes him such an important director. His last film, The Circle, which used prostitution and abortion as entry points in an investigation of how women are treated in a theocracy, was banned in Iran. And if Crimson Gold seems to pull back from that front-line position, it has its own battles to fight in the areas of poverty and class. Who knew there are economic inequalities in contemporary Iran to rival those under the Shah?
Hussein knows. A pizza-delivery guy who scooters all over Tehran, Hussein could draw you a map of the city's class structure. But don't hold your breath, because he isn't in a real big hurry. Heavyset and apparently heavily medicated, he lumbers through the movie like a bear about to enter hibernation. And he's played by Hussein Emadeddin, an actual pizza-delivery guy who seems to have been chosen expressly for his lack of expression. (Not only will you not catch Emadeddin acting, you'll barely catch him breathing.) And what you realize, as he takes you on a misguided tour of Tehran, is that Hussein is the Nowhere Man of the Islamic Republic, there but not there. Only in the movie's opening and closing scenes, when he robs a jewelry store at gunpoint, does he seem to have anything on his mind beyond where the next pizza goes.
The movie's plot consists largely of following the pizza trail, Hussein's deliveries giving us snapshots of a society that appears to be in transition from the religious fervor of the early '80s to whatever's coming next. In an extended sequence, Hussein hangs out in the opulent home of a customer who's just returned from a lengthy stay in the U.S. and now feels like a stranger in a strange land. Earlier, there's a sequence in which the police, having staked out a party, are arresting people as they come and go. In each case, Hussein just kind of hangs around, soaking up the atmosphere. But like the Robert De Niro character in Taxi Driver, he keeps a mental record of everything, resentment spreading through him like a virus. "Try the lower part of town," the jewelry-store owner tells him when he tries to purchase something he can't really afford. The lower part, the higher part, they're both the same to Hussein -- rotten to the core.