Perhaps you've heard of Taxi Driver. Well, meet Scooter Dude. In Crimson Gold (Talaye sorkh), an Iranian portrait of urban ennui, detachment and (briefly) explosive violence, the antihero rides on two wheels -- delivering pizzas, to be precise. The streets of Tehran aren't depicted as being particularly mean, per se, but their effect is largely the same as it was on ol' Travis Bickle, numbing and confounding our despondent lead until he makes some rather poor choices.
Behold Hussein (Hossain Emadeddin, a non-actor and apparently real pizza-delivery specialist) -- and get used to it, for that's what you'll be doing for most of this plaintive film. We open with a static camera aimed at the door of a jewelry store during a heist. Locked in and motionless (but for a slow zoom), we are left to sort out what's happening as morose, overweight Hussein loses his cool, onlookers panic, and the prim, senior jeweler Mr. Vaziri (Shahram Vaziri) bites it. This grim framing structure casts a queasy nihilism over the rest of the tale.
Flashing back in loose, rambling vignettes -- which, it's worth noting, bear none of the jump-cuts, temporal disorientation or general hyperactivity that a Western movie maverick would likely inject -- we become acquainted with the criminal in his civilian existence. Hussein and his buddy Ali (Kamyar Sheisi) are regular guys, trained in the art of transporting hot pies to hungry urbanites. Hussein is also planning to marry Ali's pretty sister (Azita Rayeji), and thus fiscal realities heretofore unknown to the lug are swimming into focus. Tooling in tandem through Tehran's crazy traffic (which would give LA a run for its money), the friends contemplate how women's body language indicates the value of their purses' contents. Stealing is clearly okay with them. This falls into perspective when they sit down for advice from a veteran crook, who offers: "If you want to arrest a thief, you'll have to arrest the world."
Informed by the view that nobody is really on the level (which may have contributed to the film being banned in its home country), Crimson Gold is noteworthy for its seemingly offhand appraisal of complex class issues. Directed by Jafar Panahi (The Circle) and written by Abbas Kiarostami following their celebrated collaboration on Panahi's first feature (The White Balloon), it's certainly no masterwork, but it provides fodder and a relaxed sense of time for contemplation of the human condition, largely with respect -- or lack thereof -- to caste. De Sica probably would have dug it.
Also bear in mind that Crimson Gold is a portrait of hopelessness frequently bordering on tedium. Indeed, there's a strange nobility to casting Emadeddin, whose puffy face and near-total lack of outward emotion make for a curious shift from bony, overeager leading men. However, the core theme ("Life Sucks") delivered over and again by the same method (blank stare) quickly becomes tiresome.
Fortunately, there are a couple of engaging sequences to keep us intrigued -- simultaneously giving us some insight into Hussein's otherwise completely shielded and/or nonexistent character. Both involve pizza drops. The first, a seemingly routine delivery to an upscale apartment building, breaks down entirely as police stalk about outside, politely arresting partygoers as they emerge from a private rave. The reason for these detainments is never explained, which leaves us confused on the street with Hussein, who is also forced to remain, lest he inform anyone of the stakeout. It's a clever device and works well, especially when Hussein, resigned to his fate for the night, starts sharing his pizzas and tiny, tiny hints of personality with grateful neighbors and an underage cop with an oversize gun.
The other impressive sequence is pretty much the opposite, as a very uncomfortable Hussein is welcomed, with his pizzas, into the large, lavish home of a privileged brat-man (Pourang Nakhael) -- or, more accurately, of his parents who have moved to America. One can smell in the same whiff the privileged jerk's condescension toward Hussein and his desperation for companionship, and Panahi's direction here is quite sharp. Basically the host seeks an ear so he can bitch about the erratic women in his super-size life, but once Hussein washes up and commits himself to being present, the guy ditches him in favor of his moronic girlfriend on the telephone. Watching Hussein appraise the mansion, tinkling notes on the piano, testing the fitness equipment, surveying the glorious indoor pool, the misery of the pizza-boy's low existence reaches its starkest contrast.
Were the whole film that good, there'd be raves on this page, but indeed the remainder is mostly mediocre, and ultimately forced. The main problem involves the jeweler, who initially shuns Hussein and Ali for looking rough, then ends up becoming the focal point of Hussein's vengeance. A reactionary character is fine, but there's so little buildup here that the explosion of the pizza fellow feels disjointed and random. The lead doesn't have to be smarter than this, but the filmmakers should be. Oh well, at least they impart the sense that it's always wise to tip well.