An incisive portrait of one man’s quiet rage at, and heartbreakingly violent response to, social inequality, Jafar Panahi’s Crimson Gold (written by Abbas Kiarostami) plays out like a less operatic Iranian version of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Expressionless, overweight pizza deliveryman and war veteran Hussein (Hossain Emadeddin) brims with unspoken resentment at the contemptuous treatment he receives from Tehran’s wealthy and powerful. Commencing with Hussein’s homicidal robbery of a jewelry store before flashing back to elucidate the motivations for his crime, Panahi’s somber film details with exacting perceptiveness the accumulation of minor slights and humiliations – at the hands of a jeweler, the police, his grating fiancé, an elder thief, and a rich young customer who allows him to stay the night in his opulent apartment – that drive this marginalized man to commit murder.
Capturing the sights and sounds of a bustling city that’s both economically and culturally divided, Panahi, via measured, detached cinematography, orchestrates the slow build-up to disaster with calculating precision, and Kiarostami’s script effectively dramatizes Hussein’s fury as the byproduct not of jealousy or greed but of wounded self-esteem. In this regard, Hussein is a possible stand-in for many Muslim men whose sense of self-worth is largely dictated by notions of honor and respect. Yet though Emadeddin’s artless performance seethes with under-the-surface intensity, Panahi and Kiarostami complicate such an easy interpretation of the volatile Hussein by allowing him – during a scene in which he is prevented from delivering pizzas to an apartment building (because the military is raiding a party in which young people are dancing) – an act of stunningly tender selflessness. By beginning and ending his understated masterpiece with the ill-fated robbery – and by populating the film with numerous shots of the deliveryman motorcycling around Tehran – Panahi expresses the social immobility that paralyzes the desperate, alienated Hussein, and when the climactic gunshots ring out in the jewelry store, their sound conveys a sense not of exploding rage but, instead, of sad resignation to a tragic, unavoidable fate.