Jafar Panahi’s Crimson Gold opens with a four-minute sequence, filmed in a single take, in which a burly young man with a gun kills a jewelry-shop owner and then himself. In flashback, the rest of the movie shows what led up to the shooting. Panahi is, after Abbas Kiarostami—who wrote the screenplay—Iran’s most celebrated filmmaker; his deeply unsettling 2000 movie The Circle, about the lives of Iranian women in various stages of duress and persecution, is a modern classic. Panahi makes movies that seem almost haphazardly constructed, and yet, as they meander along, a cross-section of urban life is laid bare.
In Crimson Gold, he has created a virtual Tehran tour guide. The shooter, Hussein (played by nonactor Hussein Emadeddin), delivers pizza, and his job takes him into the homes and byways of the well-to-do: He arrives at the door of a friend who no longer recognizes him; the police keep him for hours outside a ritzy luxury apartment as they wait to arrest, for reasons that are murky, young people leaving a dance party; an upscale playboy, recently returned from living in America, invites him into his home and pours out his frustrations with women and Tehran. In scenes like these, we get an almost sensual feel for the blend of city life, for the ways in which rich and poor hang together in uneasy balance. When Hussein is detained by the police outside that apartment, he passes the time talking to a jittery teenage recruit and handing out pizzas to the gruff authorities, and it’s as if we were seeing an entire society, with all its hierarchies, in microcosm. But Hussein is rarely this engaging. More often, he buzzes blank-faced through the crowded streets on his Vespa. When he’s with his friend Ali (Kamyar Sheissi) or with his fiancée, Ali’s sister (Azita Rayeji), or with practically anybody else, he’s equally shuttered. I would guess that Panahi chose Emadeddin, a real-life pizza deliverer, precisely because of his blankness; his hardened face represents the mask of the beleaguered working man.
Panahi is making a common mistake—he thinks that strong and silent is the same thing as noble. Hussein is not simply an Everyman; there’s a trace of madness in his glare. But this derangement is in the movie to make the point that Hussein is a good soul crazed by the corruptions of contemporary Tehran. It’s not surprising that Crimson Gold has been banned in Iran; it’s also no shock to discover that Emadeddin, according to an interview with Panahi, is schizophrenic. This is the kind of casting that a director like Werner Herzog might have been able to get away with—in a film like Aguirre: The Wrath of God, mindscape and landscape are fused—but Panahi is a social realist, not a metaphysician. A trained actor, or an expressive nonactor, might have held the screen and illuminated Hussein’s odyssey of humiliation. But when we see him refused entry, based on his appearance, by the jeweler he will later murder, there’s no sense of impending doom because Emadeddin never comes across as fully human—or even fully awake.
In the same way, when he’s in the playboy’s apartment, downing drinks and trying out exercise equipment, he doesn’t have that walking-time-bomb quality that Panahi must have wanted. (In the very next scene, Hussein commits murder and the film comes full circle.) If anything, our sympathies move away from Hussein in times like these: The jeweler’s killing, instead of being an explosion instigated by poverty and woe, makes us side with the old man, just as we feel for the lonesome playboy who opens up his home to Hussein, complaining that Tehran is “a city of lunatics.”
I’m glad I saw Crimson Gold. Watching it is like getting a peek behind the curtain. But it’s frustrating, too, because the casting of Emadeddin as a murderer-in-the-making precludes any psychological depth. And as an indictment of social inequality, which is the film’s calling card, Panahi inadvertantly makes a far better case for the haves than for the have-nots.
The documentarian Gary Keys explains in his movie Cuba: Island of Music why he made it—he loves Cuban music and old, beat-up American cars. Both are plentiful in Havana. By now, the Afro-Cuban sound is so “hot” that it doesn’t really need another boost, and yet this movie (which carries a 2000 copyright in its end credits) is not really a Buena Vista Social Club clone. Keys takes a scattershot approach to Cuban music, filming not only specific artists, like Los Cohibas and Los Zafiros, but also street musicians in the barrio and just about everywhere else he can find them. He throws in sequences of giggling boys tussling in the street, baseball games, women rolling cigars in a factory, pretty girls on rollerskates—whatever captures his fancy. The jazz pianist Billy Taylor is interviewed about the music—his insights into its rhythmic designs are splendid—and Keys himself talks to us from his convertible as he drives through New York. He poses a lot of questions that he never quite gets around to answering: such as, how is it that everyone in Cuba seems to be a musical genius? And it’s true—you get the feeling that you could pick anybody off the street, even the infants, and they would immediately deliver up some world-class salsa or bolero.
Toni Collette is marvelous in supporting roles but has rarely had the opportunity to carry a movie. In Japanese Story, she plays Sandy Edwards, a geologist in Perth, Australia, assigned by her company to entertain an uptight, visiting Japanese executive, Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima), in order to close a business deal. He gets to explore the remote Pilbara desert despite her polite protestations, and disaster ensues. Tsunashima gives a deft performance in a role that starts out as caricature but becomes full-bodied. Collette commands the screen virtually the entire time. The director Sue Brooks, aided by the great cinematographer Ian Baker, frames her in widescreen compositions that isolate her against startling outback vistas. When she reenters the city, she seems to carry the desert with her; its beauty and menace have shaken her to the core.