The name Jafar Panahi is one that means a lot of things to a lot of people. To most, he’s a filmmaker from a chaotic nation that itself has imprisoned him and banned him from partaking in the creation of the art that he’s become an icon for having crafted. To others, he’s a master filmmaker from the Middle East the likes of which we have rarely if ever seen. However, if one thing is universally true, it’s that he’s one of his generation’s greatest, most important and arguably most influential and singular voices.
And there are very few of his films that prove this fact with greater effect than his team up with fellow Iranian icon, Abbas Kiarostami, Crimson Gold.
From the very opening of this film, we become privy to a film that is not quite like anything you’e seen before or likely will following. Opening as if what we’re about to see will be a brooding bit of neo-noir, finding us introduced to a man named Hussein as he robs a jeweler only to have the heist go horrible and disturbingly wrong, the opening scene is far from an indicator of what will follow. With the end of Hussein’s story being portray, ostensibly, in that first shot (which is yes, one extremely long and troubling take) we flash back to two days prior, where we meet Hussein and his right hand man Ali.
See, much of the story her revolves around Hussein the character, instead of the heist we see committed in the first scene. With a marriage to Ali’s sister, “The Bride,” on the verge, he’s trying to overcome his status economically and socially, a topic that in the very next major set piece, involving a thief named “The Man in the Tea House,” becomes one of the film’s primary themes. With the majority of the film being an attempt to build to that powerful first sequence, it has no interest in plotting out the actual heist. Instead, it sets up the stakes culturally, economically and narratively, turning this film into a breathtaking and powerful character study first, an interesting take on film noir second.
And as a character piece, one of the most important qualitative talking points has to be the performances. Spearheaded by one lead performance here, this is as thoughtful and powerful a character study as you’re bound to see from a director, Panahi, who has crafted more than his fair share of great character pieces. Hossain Emadeddin stars here and gives a tour de force performance. It is arguably a one note, rather monotone performance, but there is a fire behind those eyes, especially when he feels as though he is being called into question, particularly in the aforementioned tea house sequence. There is so much brewing in that sequence, and then in one set at a jewelry store, that these moments are plaintive and thoughtful, but also deeply profound and moving. Kamyar Sheisi stars as Ali and Azita Rayeji is The Bride, both giving solid performances, but the film isn’t so much interested in their stories, as it is their relationships with Hussein.
With a script from Kiarostami, the film is riddled with great moments. The film itself is ostensibly about the social and economic rigidity found within Iran, but it fits that bill without being obtuse, or direct in any fashion. A deeply rich film in the guise of a quiet character piece, the film does exactly what every character study should do, and that is paint an intimate picture of one man and his place in this big old universe that we all call home. And Kiarostami is more than fitting to have behind the pen for that type of picture, and this film holds within it quite a few Kiarostami calling cards, turning this into something really superb.
However, the key to this entire picture is the director behind the camera, Panahi. Aesthetically, this film turns most films from his screenwriter, an admittedly muted auteur, into a Michael Bay film. With the most action coming from a handful of scenes set atop a motorcycle, but even then, Panahi paints those scenes with such a subtle brush that they seem ripped out of a film a time traveling Ozu would have made had he grown up in turn of the century Iran. The film itself is almost universally static with its camera, uninterested in moving to follow a character or a conversation, instead simply allowing these men and women to inhabit a world that is shot brilliantly by Hossein Jafarian and edited by none other than Panahi himself. It’s as far from modern American cinema as one could ever possibly imagine, made by an auteur who is as singular a filmmaker as one could ever possibly imagine.
And it is about time Criterion gets a hold of one or two of his films, and give them the Blu-ray treatment they so rightly deserve. While Crimson Gold isn’t the most cinematically expansive piece of work, it’s a breathtakingly intimate meditation on a man trying to break free of the strict social and economic constraints that seem to take a hold of lives in his native Iran. With a thrillingly claustrophobia found within each and every frame, each second of the film tightens that tension, particularly knowing exactly what each frame of this film is ultimately leading up to, Panahi’s film is a masterpiece. Toss in a scholarly commentary, a handful of retrospective interviews, a panel discussion about Panahi’s career and maybe even a discussion with some Western filmmakers about his influence (Scorsese and Spielberg are among many who are avid supporters of the filmmaker) and you could have a home video release that not only shines a light on a film that is more than deserving of it, but one that could ignite an interest in a filmmaker for an entire generation. It’s a release that not only should happen, but a company like Criterion has a service to help make something like this (not even necessarily this film, but Lord knows Panahi’s canon is vast and rewarding) happen, and soon.