Rent this Weekend: A Movie by a Jailed Iranian Director
Last week a number of America's highest-profile filmmakers—Spielberg, Scorsese, and Coppola among them—petitioned for the release of Jafar Panahi, an acclaimed Iranian film director who has been imprisoned in Tehran since March. "Upon his arrest, Islamic Republic officials initially charged Mr. Panahi with 'unspecified crimes.' They have since reversed themselves, and the charges are now specifically related to his work as a filmmaker," reads the letter, timed to coincide with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to the U.N.
Of course, renting Panahi's work isn't going to have any effect on the director's confinement, or prevent similar arrests from occurring in the future. But Panahi's bluntly critical films—three of which, The Mirror (1997), Offside (2006), and Crimson Gold (2003), are currently available on Region 1 DVD—are not easily forgotten. It might be hard now to avoid spotting queasy real-life parallels in the films—in Crimson Gold, there are numerous chilling instances of people being carted off by police, shouting all the while that they didn't do anything—and watching them may not exactly help sustain the awareness raised by that star-studded petition. But their message of injustice has never been more urgent.
Panahi is often described as a neorealist filmmaker. (He has been unable to make a film for four years, and they have been banned in Iran for the last 10.) For point of reference, his closest American equivalent might be Kelly Reichardt, whose Wendy and Lucy—itself named as an example of "neo-neorealism" by A.O. Scott—focuses on a cash-strapped, marginalized character gradually boxed in by harder and harder choices. Reichardt's work is also more visually serene than that of the many filmmakers treating similarly gritty topics who are in thrall to the always-hovering Dardenne brothers.
In Panahi's films, though, the stakes are higher, as he chronicles life—often the lives of women—under a repressive regime in its traffic-choked capital. My favorite, perhaps for its noirish elements, is Crimson Gold. It focuses on a hulking pizza deliveryman, Hussein (Hossain Emadeddin), whose attempts to transcend his meager circumstances become increasingly more desperate. The film was written by Panahi's mentor, Abbas Kiarostami, Iran's most revered filmmaker worldwide. Crimson Gold concerns brutal social realities, showing Kiarostami hasn't always had his head in the clouds, as the Iranian cinephiles interviewed in this fascinating Believer article make it sound. (Kiarostami released his own statement in March calling for the release of Panahi and fellow filmmaker Mahmoud Rasoulof.)
Panahi's films are much more straightforward narratively speaking than Kiarostami's, but Crimson Gold does have a suspense-amplifying circular construction: it begins and ends with the botched robbery of a jewelry store. That store, with its astoundingly snobbish staff, becomes an intense fixation for Hussein and his best friend, Ali (Kamyar Sheisi), whose (mostly one-sided) banter provides some levity. Hussein is also set to be married to Ali's sister. It's an engagement-ring query that first compels the two friends to approach the jeweler, who effectively bars them from entering his store.
The film's longest scenes, though, are thwarted pizza deliveries—one outside a party where police are staked out, rounding up revelers as they leave, and the other at a posh high-rise flat where a manic young man invites Hussein to dine on the very food he's delivered. After his host takes a phone call, Hussein wanders around chugging a bottle of wine pulled from the refrigerator, listening to the smooth jazz piped throughout the place. He takes a drunken plunge into an indoor pool before he retires to the privileged perch of the apartment's balcony, from which he watches the sun rise over all of Tehran.
Panahi cuts straight from this panorama to the concluding reprise of the robbery scene, suggesting the taking in of the view as a kind of snapping point for Hussein. This put me in mind of Kurosawa's great 1963 policier High and Low, in which a kidnapper targets a well-to-do family in a hilltop house visible from the city below—a disparity reflected, of course, in the movie's very title.
Crimson Gold is grim throughout, and it ends on an especially bleak note, but it's by no means a deck-stacked-against-its-protagonist slog. Panahi first of all tells a story, organically summoning his powerful indictment of the state of things in Iran from within rather than stamping it over every frame. He is, quite simply, a fine filmmaker, which is certainly a large part of why he has so long been in official disfavor in his country—an unsettling thing to contemplate.