Death of a pizza salesman

A movie retraces the tragic life of a disillusioned Iranian.

A man stands just inside the doorway of a posh jewelry shop, holding a gun and looking in bewilderment at the crowd gathering outside. Eventually he points the pistol at his head and kills himself.

The movie, "Crimson Gold," then leaps back in time to trace the causes of this violent, seemingly abrupt event.

That sounds like the starting point of a Hollywood melodrama, but the origins and aims of Jafar Panahi's latest Iranian film are very different from those of most American movies. "Crimson Gold" is a serious, unsensational exploration of class discrimination and urban alienation in a large city - in this case, Tehran - seen through the eyes of a pizza delivery man whose job exposes him to a wide cross section of society.

Panahi's movie - written by Abbas Kiarostami, the greatest Iranian filmmaker of them all - is at once a boldly conceptualized drama, a complex character study, and a gripping suspense thriller.

Some of its episodes are unlike anything I've ever encountered on the screen, as when the main character is delayed on his route by police waiting outside a ritzy apartment building to pounce on alleged wrongdoers when they try to go home from a party.

The reasons behind the story's explosive culmination are sketched in a similarly original, even eccentric, way as we follow the pizza man's increasing antipathy toward the people who look down on him.

It's easy to snicker at him, since he's often loutish; but it's just as easy to sympathize with him, since he's enjoyed few advantages in life and has no idea how to counter the condescension he inspires in smarter and wealthier people.

The eruption of Iran's great cinema is arguably the world's most exciting filmmaking development of recent years, and it hasn't stopped yet. Many Iranian movies tackle political and psychological questions through ingenious uses of metaphor, since state-sponsored censors are wary of direct approaches to sensitive issues. Gifted filmmakers like Panahi and Kiarostami keep pushing the limits, though, and "Crimson Gold" shows how thrillingly their efforts are paying off. It's a troubling, courageous, compulsively watchable work of art.

Not rated; contains violence.

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