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Confined, claustrophobic, circumscribed—welcome to Jafar Panahi’s Tehran. The director’s previous film was titled The Circle, and his latest one, Crimson Gold, could be called The Box. This modest but riveting movie opens in a small, shadowy jewelry shop, where a desperate man paces, unable to conclude a bungled robbery. The camera, seemingly as trapped as the clearly distraught thief, doesn’t move. Then shots ring out, and the story ends. And begins.

Among the Iranian films exported to the West, there are two principal strains: the abstract, self-reflexive cinema of Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and the underclass melodramas of Rakhshan Bani-Etemad. Panahi is clearly in the former camp; Kiarostami scripted the younger director’s first film, The White Balloon, as well as Crimson Gold. Yet Panahi has brought a bit of the didactic problem drama to his controversial recent work, which is essentially banned in his homeland. The Circle expanded its circumference from three female parolees to encompass all women living in the prison of ultra-orthodox Muslim society. Crimson Gold’s central character is Panahi’s first male protagonist, but he has only slightly more autonomy.

Although he is a nifty structural device, Hussein (Hussein Emadeddin) is also a real character. In fact, Kiarostami’s script is based on the case of an actual jewelry-store robber. A terse, hulking, somewhat frazzled veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, Hussein works delivering pizza, which takes him to the city’s wealthy precincts. Although he doesn’t seem especially interested in his impending engagement to the nameless sister (Azita Rayeji) of his chatty pal Ali (Kamyar Sheissi), Hussein feels honor-bound to buy her a piece of jewelry as a wedding gift. He’s snubbed during two trips to an upscale jeweler—which ultimately spurs him to return with a gun (a rarity in Iranian art cinema). The fateful robbery attempt opens the film, which then proceeds as an extended flashback.

Like many of his peers, Panahi rarely works with professional actors. Emadeddin, who embodies the film’s outrage so persuasively, is in fact a pizza deliveryman. (He is also, like onetime Werner Herzog alter ego Bruno S., a schizophrenic.) Following the conceptual coups of The Circle and Kiarostami’s Ten, Hussein’s job provides another solution to the cinematic problem of depicting Iranian society honestly. Because the country’s censors won’t allow women to be depicted in private without the outer garments they actually wear only outdoors, Panahi contrives to keep his camera in the public sphere. Thus Hussein roves upscale Tehran without ever entering its houses or apartments. When held temporarily by police waiting to arrest partygoers for unauthorized fraternization with the opposite sex, the deliveryman has simply moved from one sort of limbo to another.

The exception to Hussein’s routine exclusion is an unexpected sojourn that stuns him: Arriving at a multistory penthouse apartment occupied by the wealthy son of a couple that lives in the United States, Hussein is invited in. The three young women that the rich brat (Pourang Nakhayi) had been entertaining have just left capriciously, and the guy’s a bit peeved. As his host prattles on—both to his guest and on his cell phone—Hussein wanders around this modern-day palace in shock, finally plopping distractedly into the pool. Though Hussein has been permitted to come indoors, he’s more outside than ever.

In structure, Crimson Gold is looser than The Circle, tracking one man’s roundabout wanderings rather than a procession of thematically linked characters. Perhaps that’s why Panahi decided to open this unstudied polemic with its climax. Hussein may occasionally seem free, but his fate has already been determined: It was written by the class system.

Simultaneously a cozy fable and a harsh exposé, Tokyo Godfathers has everything you’d expect from a tale of the world’s largest megalopolis—yakuza, neon, and packed commuter trains—and a few things you might not, notably Christmas and homeless people. The Japanimated film opens with a nativity pageant, then shifts quickly to three street persons and their discovery of an abandoned infant. “A Christmas present from God,” exclaims the most nurturing member of the trio, who happens to be a fading drag queen.

This relatively down-to-earth scenario seems remote from the concerns of most anime films, including director Satoshi Kon’s two previous features, Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress. In fact, it’s an old Hollywood chestnut, filmed twice by John Ford—as Marked Men in 1919 and as 3 Godfathers in 1948. Whereas the baby-rescuing cowboys of the latter film must cross Death Valley, this one’s antiheroes—high-strung transvestite Hana, grizzled drunk Gin, and teenage runaway Miyuki—wander Tokyo’s shabbier quarters, beginning with the Shinjuku Central Park homeless encampment where they live.

Whether hailed as the messiah or not, a newborn baby is a symbol of hope, and these characters—and their dark, cold hometown—could certainly use that. Hana names the child Kiyoko (“Pure Girl”) and imagines that the baby could bind the three outsiders together as a family. In fact, the ever-sniffling Hana (whose name means “Flower” but also “Nose”) is the only one of them who doesn’t have an actual family in Tokyo. Gin and Miyuki have both abandoned theirs, for reasons that will eventually be explained. Of course, Kiyoko also has parents somewhere—a situation that turns out to be quite complicated. Searching for the couple whose photo is included among the baby’s things, the ragtag questers encounter a gangster, an assassin, a dying alcoholic, a Latina wet nurse, and a suicidal woman.

Much of Tokyo Godfathers is universally comprehensible, from its broken families, failed dreams, and skid-row despair to its string of glib (but underplayed) happy endings. Kon treats homelessness as both a physical and an emotional reality, ending one phase of the trio’s quest with the discovery that a house identified from a photograph has been demolished. (Scratch most city films and you’ll find a comment on real-estate speculation.) Other developments may seem strange but are in fact authentic: Japanese mourners do leave elaborate gifts at graves—which explains why Gin, Hana, and Miyuki head to a cemetery for provisions—they even find diapers—and some young toughs do attack homeless people (in this case, Gin) as a misbegotten New Year’s cleansing gesture.

The story has its sweet moments, and though its characters are more realistically rendered than most anime protagonists, they’re not untouched by Disney-style cuteness. Still, Kon forgoes such customary creatures as robots, monsters, and talking animals in favor of shadowy tenements, overflowing dumpsters, and snow-heaped sidewalks. There’s not a materially impossible moment in his film until the final-credits sequence—in which buildings dance to a reggae arrangement of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”

Although drawn rather than photographed, Tokyo Godfathers is a more accurate and evocative representation of Tokyo than Lost in Translation, whose principal location, the Tokyo Park Hyatt, is right across the street from Shinjuku Central Park. If anyone needs it, Kon’s film offers more evidence that you can see better from street level than from a high-rise window. CP