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“Crimson Gold” observes Iran’s socioeconomic inequities through the eyes of a pizza deliverer

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A slice-of-life look at class conflict in contemporary Iranian society, Jafar Panahi’s fourth feature, Crimson Gold (2003), begins with a botched jewelry store heist and unfolds in flashback to tell the story of the perpetrator, Hussein (Hossain Emadeddin), a humble, corpulent, and listless pizza delivery driver who ultimately reaches his breaking point after suffering a series of indignities.

The script, written by fellow Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami, was inspired by an actual news article about a pizza deliveryman in Tehran who shot a jeweler and then himself during an attempted robbery. Played by non-professional Emadeddin, a real-life pizza deliveryman who also happens to be diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, the actor’s portrayal has earned comparisons to Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976)— another isolated, mentally unstable war veteran driven to violent behavior.

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Seething with quiet rage and self-contempt, Hussein rides across Tehran late at night, delivering pizzas to penthouses in upscale neighborhoods on his motorbike while being reminded of his socioeconomic status at every turn and noticing absurdities all around him. As his occupation offers him fleeting glimpses into the insular world of the privileged few, Crimson Gold meticulously observes the inequities and indifference that eventually push him over the edge.

In a conversation with Xan Brooks for The Guardian, director Panahi explains, “Take any human being, and you find that his situation is a direct result of his family, his education, his economic position. So this thriller is not about the crime itself. It’s about the background story.” Panahi also intelligently reveals Hussein’s essential decency and capacity for kindness, thus complicating his questionable actions. When Hussein tries to make a delivery at an apartment complex, he encounters police officers staking out a decadent party, who thwart his efforts and forbid him to leave or call the restaurant. In spite of this rude treatment, he offers them pizza free of charge.

In a haunting, dreamlike sequence before Crimson Gold returns to the tragic robbery attempt, Hussein appears with a stack of pizzas at an ultramodern high rise apartment, where an idle, lonesome young playboy invites him in to partake of the very food he has just delivered. The ambiguity and sense of unease that permeate this encounter urge us to reconsider everything that has happened so far. Although the themes of Panahi’s film may be bluntly obvious at times, the subtlety of his methods here make this multilayered, noirish descent into one man’s personal hell an indelible and powerful cinematic experience. With a deceptively simple screenplay, circular structure, humanistic underpinnings, and solidly convincing lead performance, Crimson Gold invites us to contemplate the harsh social realities that compel otherwise reasonable people to commit desperate, self-destructive acts of violence.

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