.The Pizza Guy

Missing Jafar Panahi film ‘Crimson Gold’ stars a real-life Iranian delivery man

Hossain Emadeddin, the non-actor lead character of Jafar Panahi’s Crimson Gold, is a hulking, mouth-breathing, apparently slow-witted man who makes a living delivering pizza in contemporary Tehran. His job is as tough and unglamorous as we would imagine. Evidently there’s no DoorDash or other online fetch-it services in Iran circa 2003, so he has to collect in cash for every pie he drops off to a succession of surly customers.

In addition to the rigors of piloting a motorbike through the capital’s disorganized traffic, there’s an extra layer of law enforcement that makes Hossain’s task exasperating. One evening he is prevented from taking his order into an apartment building by a squad of irritated-acting police keeping an eye on a “wild” party there—alcoholic beverages, members of the opposite sex mixing with each other, crimes like that. In Iran, it seems, ordinary people need official permission to do even the smallest things.

Those are not the only aggravations weighing on Hossain’s mind. Deep inside him, perhaps going hand-in-hand with his real-life diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, is the realization that his life in the slow lane is a product of the economic inequality he observes as he zips around town. Hossain and his buddy Ali (Kamyar Sheisi) compare notes after Ali finds a woman’s stolen purse lying in the street. They agree that there’s a party going on in modern Iran and they’re not invited.

That’s made perfectly clear when Hossain goes shopping in an upscale jewelry store for a special gift. Ali’s sister and Hossain are planning to get married soon—although Hossain doesn’t seem very excited about it. The jeweler refuses to let the two guys, dressed in their work clothes, come in the front door to look at the merchandise. Later, with Hossain’s meek fiancée in tow, they again get the brush-off from the jeweler, who informs them they’d be better off shopping at the low-price gold souk downtown. 

The combination of everyday snubs, a lowball job, condescending attitudes and overbearing cops brings Hossain’s latent class resentment to a rolling boil. It’s at this point that director Panahi’s character study—co-written by master Persian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami—begins to take on some of the semi-comedic, semi-menacing overtones of similar narratives by New York’s Safdie brothers, Benny and Josh (Uncut Gems, Good Time). In common with Hossain and Ali, the Safdies’ streetwise protagonists tend to operate on the fringes of law-abiding straight society, ready to scoop up any unattended assets that happen into view, and occasionally lapsing into violence. Along the way, none of them gets any respect. The big difference between typical Safdie characters and the humiliated Hossain, however, is the latter’s slow-moving, easy-going generosity toward others. That’s the Panahi touch.

The 60-year-old Panahi achieved international acclaim at film festivals in the 1990s, alongside compatriot filmmakers Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Marjane Satrapi and Majid Majidi. From them we’ve received remarkably candid dramatic commentaries on Iranian life, in Panahi’s case communicated via stripped-down, starkly realistic storytelling—in The Circle, Taxi and the documentary This Is Not a Film—that almost always takes the side of powerless people trying to lead their lives in the harsh environment of Iran’s ultra-conservative religious oligarchy. Candid commentary is one of the government’s least favorite topics of conversation, and the rebellious Panahi is a serious gadfly. For that reason, his career has been one long struggle to make films in spite of repeatedly being punished for doing so.

Crimson Gold, essentially the real-life story of this put-upon pizza guy, was produced, directed and edited by Panahi and entered in the 2003 Cannes Film Festival without the Iranian government’s permission—which eventually meant it missed its U.S. commercial release. Now, under the banner of the streaming service Virtual Cinema, Bay Area audiences can finally catch Panahi’s surprisingly tender tale of a frustrated working-class schnook, even though it’s not playing in a local theater.

Visit www.kimstim.com/film/crimson-gold/ to learn more.

Streaming beginning June 25.

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