Pondering Crimson Gold, the extraordinary new film by Iranian master Jafar Panahi, prompted me to recall a moment in the recent Oscar telecast. Accepting her trophy for Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola displayed a charming ingenuousness in thanking several of the filmmakers who had influenced her, including Michelangelo Antonioni. In one sense, the citation was inarguably appropriate, since Coppola’s film portrays a latter-day version of the idle rich limned by the great Italian director in films such as L’Avventura and Red Desert. Yet, as I noted in my review of it, Lost in Translation ends up looking more like a vacuous, if beautifully crafted, sitcom than a serious artistic enterprise precisely because it lacks Antonioni’s most salient virtue: a moral outlook that comprehends the largest social ramifications of wealth and privilege.

A similar tribute to this filmmaker’s vision came in a revealing conversation between two film critics of different generations that appeared in The New York Times on Feb. 22. The topic was Antonioni’s Blowup, newly released on DVD. While the younger critic, the New York Sun‘s Nathan Lee, commented on the film’s intellectual gamesmanship and enduring formal fascinations, his fifty-something counterpart, Stuart Klawans of The Nation, was struck by something he’d missed entirely when seeing the ultra-trendy movie as a teenager: “its social and political critique,” the caustic view it offers, for example, of David Hemmings’ cool photographer, who turns images of poor people into advertising fodder.

Blowup is a bitter diatribe against the hip young characters who go reveling through the movie,” avers Klawans, a hip, young wannabe back when who, today, says, “I was blind to the movie then. And watching it now really brought home to me a sense of the wasted possibilities of my own generation, of what we did not achieve because of certain attitudes and issues of temperament that are dealt with in this film…Blowup became more personal to me this time, in a very disturbing way.”

Klawans’ bracing auto-critique cuts in two directions, of course. While it takes himself and his generation (which is also mine) to task for not recognizing and building on the moral appraisal at the heart of Antonioni’s film, it also implicitly asks where movies of comparable acuity can be found today. The unfortunate answer: in our part of the world, almost nowhere. Its intellectual side lost in the moral mists of postmodernism, while its commercial side increasingly sacrifices sense to sensation, the West at present is more a culture of moral vacancy than of moral understanding, and its art reflects that at every turn. Billions of dollars are poured into cinema production and consumption annually, yet where is the movie–arty or mainstream, European or American–that probes the widening gap between the rich and the poor in any of the West’s individual cultures, or between the West and “the rest”?

To see films that pose such questions in truly illuminating ways, you can look back to cinema of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, when art and social scrutiny were not such strangers to each other. Or you can look to the Iranian cinema, which, pretty much alone in the world, has a current reputation for linking artistic vision to social and moral vision.

Crimson Gold opens one morning in a Tehran jewelry store where a robbery is in progress. The camera, looking from inside the darkened showroom toward the front door, keeps a fixed gaze while moving slowly, steadily forward (a movement recalling the famous climactic tracking shot in Antonioni’s The Passenger) as the store’s owner grapples with the robber, a large man in a floppy coat and motorcycle helmet. Amid flailing and shouts, the thief’s gun fires. He then moves toward the door and sees that people are closing in outside, trapping him in the store. He raises the gun to his temple, and as the film cuts to black, we hear a shot. What we’ve just witnessed, evidently, is a murder and a suicide. The film then flashes back to show us what led to the crime.

In praising Iranian cinema for its moral and political dimensions, I don’t mean to suggest to the uninitiated that they’re in for tidy, pre-packaged polemics in dramatic form. On the contrary, like other great Iranian films, Crimson Gold–scripted by the great Abbas Kiarostami for his erstwhile assistant, Panahi–has the carefully inflected, very human richness of a fiction by Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. Having just seen the film a third time, I’m still marveling at how resonant are many of its smaller details: for example, the woman’s purse we encounter in the second scene.

We soon learn that the robber was/is a heavyset guy named Hossein (Hossein Emadeddin) who has a younger, more chipper partner, Ali (Kamyar Sheissi). No one’s definition of career criminals, these two work as pizza delivery men, a steady job that in present-day Tehran, alas, doesn’t pay anywhere near a living wage; hence their sideline in snatching purses from their motorbikes. When we first see them together, they dump the sparse contents of one such catch onto a cafe table, suddenly giving us an image that, like an embryo, seems to predict the whole film.

The duo’s trifling bounty consists of little more than a couple of tubes of makeup, some candy and a ring. The ring, it seems, has had to be altered because (as that candy suggests) the woman has grown fatter. There’s something else in the bag, too: a receipt from a jewelry shop for a necklace costing 75 million rials (nearly $10,000). So there are women walking around Tehran whose very mundane purses one can easily snatch, yet who can afford necklaces worth more than the annual income of most Iranian families? Though Hossein’s heavy eyebrows barely arch, he surely reads this bill as a staggering proof of the way things are.

He and Ali take the ring to the jewelry store indicated on the receipt, inventing a little story to explain their presence. They are simply curious, drawn to the sanctum of such wealth. The proprietor, the man Hossein will kill, sees them coming and blocks their entry, telling them to go to south Tehran–the city’s low-rent district–to do their business. He can tell by looking at them that they don’t belong in his shop. This slighting affront, more than the gold in the man’s vault, kindles what is to come.

In the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 a key slogan was mustaz’afin, “solidarity with the oppressed.” If Crimson Gold might be taken as a latter-day defender of that very ideal, it is also, quite clearly, a stinging indictment of Iran’s failure to realize its revolutionary promises. In that, this film is hardly alone. After the Islamic Republic acted to revive the nation’s cinema in the early 1980s, the Iranian movies that gradually began to attract international attention seemed, in their ethos of compassion and formal lyricism, to reflect both revolutionary idealism and a sense of cultural renewal. Since the election of reformist president Khatami in 1997, however, this remarkable cinema’s mood has grown ever darker, more caustic and critical of Iran’s fraying social contract.

Kiarostami’s suicide-themed Taste of Cherry (1997) announced the turn toward asperity, and its lead was notably followed by Panahi’s The Circle (2000), about the plight of poor women in Iran. The latter film and Crimson Gold having been banned in Iran, Panahi admits that he is now essentially working for an international audience, and while I’ve questioned the distortions such an export-only approach can entail, there’s no denying that Crimson Gold aptly evokes the distress of a country where the middle class is sliding into poverty while a small upper-crust grows ever wealthier, and all efforts at amelioration via politics are blocked by hardliners who control the theocratic government.

The film maps such discontents across the contours of Hossein’s bulky person and his sprawling city. He is so bloated, we learn, because of the cortisone he takes to treat injuries he suffered in the Iran-Iraq War. (Note that the U.S. supplied Saddam Hussein, the aggressor in that war, with chemical weapons that were used on the likes of Hossein.) On his nightly deliveries, he gets to witness the contortions other Tehranis must endure. In one striking scene he’s held by cops who are arresting people emerging from a swinging party–a common humiliation in a society where the morality police are ever vigilant against ordinary hedonism.

Crimson Gold is beautifully crafted in every particular, from Hossein Jafarian’s muted photography to the haunting performance Panahi elicits from the stolid, schizophrenic non-actor who was picked to portray Hossein. One of the most ingeniously captivating things about the film, though, is how it manages to feel episodic and anecdotal up until its penultimate scene, when the story’s thematic strands suddenly converge.

It gives away nothing to say that this scene involves Hossein delivering pizzas to the snazzy apartment of a young, rich guy who invites him in for some company and to listen to his complaints about the “bitches” who’ve recently left. Narrative-wise, not much happens here. What does happen deftly interweaves such formal particulars as decor, music, pacing and camerawork. Notice how, when Hossein enters the apartment, Panahi introduces the use of handheld camera, a very understated way of placing us in the spot that counts most at this juncture: inside Hossein’s head, looking through his weary, disillusioned eyes.

Ultimately, this climactic passage strikes me as the subtlest yet most thoroughgoing cinematic coup I’ve encountered in a movie in recent memory. And it recalls no one more than Michelangelo Antonioni in its organic way of uniting precise formal expressiveness with both psychological nuance and penetrating moral and political insight.

Given the film’s quietly devastating impact, one can easily leave the theater wondering who’s worse off: Iranians, who have to deal with the social problems X-rayed here, or Westerners, whose artists seem to have lost the capacity for such brilliant, compassionate engagement. EndBlock