Skillfully weaving Dostoevsky and Hitchcock into an emphatically contempo Iranian setting, scripter-helmer Mohammad Ali Sajjadi crafts an engrossing tapestry that may finally bring him international recognition after two decades behind the camera. “The Crime,” like its acknowledged inspiration “Crime and Punishment,” is more about the psychological effects of murder than the deed itself. This finely layered work could easily become a popular choice on the fest circuit, leading to limited arthouse release.
Frustrated writer-student Siavash (Shahram Haghighat-Doust) stabs his sister’s suitor, a wealthy antique dealer/money lender, to death. The nicely edited early scenes, with Siavash stealing a knife from a slaughterhouse, culminate in the violent slaying and his nervous vomiting afterward. Just as he’s cramming some loot into a satchel, however, a door opens revealing cleaning woman Mahtaj (Mitra Hajjar) rooted to the spot.
Something about her rigid, unemotional stare prevents him from killing the only witness to his crime. Instead, he runs first to a friend’s house and then home, unable to calm his increasingly erratic behavior.
Earlier ties between the victim and Siavash lead imposing police Inspector Ebrahimi (Jamshid Hashempour) to come knocking. Noting Siavash’s jumpiness, the tough looking detective tries to win his confidence by making surprising confessions of his own.
Siavash’s friends fear for his sanity as pressure mounts from the cop, leading to Siavash’s near crack-up when he receives a mysterious, threatening phone call. Convinced Mahtaj is blackmailing him, he tracks her down and tails her, culminating, in an obvious parallel with “Vertigo,” at a cemetery and with a surprising confrontation.
Helmer Sajjadi doesn’t stint in cat-and-mouse anxieties, but uses them to fill in character, constantly building ever-more complex psychological profiles so that an ostensibly simple murder plot becomes an exploration of identity. Thwarting easy expectations, he plays with ideas of internal and external punishment, uninterested in facile moral absolutes — something probably honed through his other career as a novelist.
As the murderer, Haghighat-Doust gives a spiky performance as the ultimately sympathetic, troubled man terrorized by guilt and struggling to justify his murderous act. Through it all, the emotionless, statuesque Mahtaj, a raven-haired Kim Novak figure in a chador, exerts an ever-increasing fascination. As she sheds her cipher status, she comes to embody the struggles of many working-class women in rigid fundamentalist societies.
Sajjadi’s excellent use of sound and music reveals an easy familiarity with Hitchcock’s aural style. Subtitling could be improved.