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MIFF 2012: “Modest Reception” may warrant little more than just that

Modest Reception (Paziraie sadeh)

Directed by Mani Haghighi

Written by Mani Haghighi and Amir Reza Koohestani

2012, Iran

After the end credits and their free-jazz accompaniment had come to a close and the curtains began rolling inwards, I and the pair seated beside me exchanged some quick thoughts about what we thought we had just seen: an oddball Iranian road-film in which Leyla and Kaveh, two variably eccentric and somewhat suspect Tehranis, drive through the dry, wintry countryside with a carload of rial (the chief unit of Iranian currency) stuffed into 260 or so numbered plastic bags, most of which have already been done away with by the time the movie begins.  Over the course of the film they attempt to give these millions upon millions of rial away to the various individuals they meet, almost all of whom are lower to working class men. The pair, whose relationship remains unclear thanks to the elaborate lies they concoct to throw any suspicious recipients off their scent, consider themselves to be almsgivers, but have a set of rules by which they must abide: one bag per person, and video evidence of the donation. On a very brief tangent, it is interesting to realise how ubiquitous the iPhone has become such that the repeated presence of one in a film barely registers as product placement. Returning to the task at hand, the pair beside me expressed reserved positivity about the film. What it was exactly that they liked about the film is up for speculation. I suspect it was the semi-novelty of the film’s premise combined with the surprise of seeing chicly-dressed Iranians flinging engagingly scripted profanities at one another and behaving with a recklessness and near nihilism seen more commonly in a certain breed of Western film and less commonly in the rather socially conscious work that epitomises the current Iranian cinema.

Modest Reception is also very episodic, so much so that there are rarely any scenes, sequences or inserts linking one money drop to the next. This was probably a good decision, not so much narratively but tonally and thematically. A desire to embroider the episodes together with an obvious plotline would have detracted from the absurdity of Leyla and Kaveh’s actions, the very thing that drives the viewer to wonder about and theorise on the significance of their behaviour. Who are these people and what gives them the liberty and license to expend large sums of money to the point of literally burning them? Are they criminals on the lam seeking to atone for their sins by doing good? Or are they members of the wealthy upper middle class that have grown altogether sick of their privilege and their lives, or two people mourning some deep loss or in the midst of his and hers matching existential crises? These answers will never be explicitly answered. Maybe implicitly, if you look and listen hard enough. In one instance, Kaveh is one the phone to his (or their?) mother who is for some reason on morphine. Dying perhaps? Based on Kaveh’s reaction moments before he answers, either she isn’t at death’s door, or she is and he could give a rat’s ass, or he’s pretending not to…until it becomes clear that he gives a whole nest’s worth towards the film’s conclusion. Leyla on the other hand seems the more volatile and hot-headed of the pair, at least initially. She is confrontational, contradictory and impulsive but ultimately the most “sympathetic” of the two, according to the pair beside me, as “sympathetic” as either of these two get, if putting a sick mule out of its misery with seven shots from a pistol counts for anything. Neither was likeable though, not in the least.

The term unlikeable is bandied about far too often when people talk about movie characters, in a way that heavily idealises human beings as a species. As a term, “likeable” is wildly imprecise. It is a blanket statement, an implication that an individual is incapable of being liked, by anyone, anywhere. This must surely be hyperbole, logically, even statistically. Even Hitler must have had a couple of fans. Regardless of this, if a character says mean things a little too often, they are unlikeable. If a character speaks their mind at all they could very well be at risk of being termed unlikeable. If a character lies, steals, cheats, betrays or acts with “undue” self-interest, they are unlikeable. Characters that say too much or say too little, do too much or do too little, feel too much or feel too little – and even those that are just right – are too often deemed disagreeable by critics and general audiences alike. It seems the only characters anybody gives half a chance are the idealised; the unassuming saint or the holy fool. T.E. Lawrence or Chance from Being There.

Of greatest relevance to Modest Reception though, is the character whose “unlikability” stems from the fact that they are hard to read, their motivations oblique or seemingly non-existent, their behaviour illogical or irrational; a cypher. In this respect, Modest Reception has some slight hints of absurdist theatre in the obsessive circularity of events and arguments, and the fact that the protagonists come across as instruments of randomness. But Leyla and Kaveh may not be quite as impenetrable as they seem. It may be as simple as it looks, on the simplest of levels: two rich people trying to give their fortune to the less fortunate, repeatedly perplexed by the fact that their gifts are met with anything but unreserved platitudes and beatification. It is exactly as the title implies. From the old man living in the feeblest of shacks to the shop owner suspicious of their liberal, big city ways and their bags of cash, our road-tripping almsgivers are perhaps faced with the realisation that all they have may be worthless to those who ostensibly have nothing. So is this another film about the emptiness of being a have-all; Sophia Coppola via Iran, only a hell more talkative? There is more than one mention of losing children, so maybe what we’re seeing is a grieving couple simply acting out, raging against the universe and the kind of pain that money could never ease. But how this translates to the task they have set for themselves is difficult to see. And the rules? Does the self-congratulatory act of filming a donation not detract from its actual value? Why must the recipients be limited to one bag? And most curiously, why the unwillingness to accept refusal of their offer, such that they have to stage elaborate ploys in order to ensure that the money is at least taken, converting would-be donations into strange transactions of sorts. Not to view this film through the lens of “Iranian Cinema”, but Modest Reception seems to be on a vaguely similar socio-political wavelength to something like Panahi’s Crimson Gold in its depictions of encounters across the class divide, wonderfully brought to life in this film by Haghighi and his entire cast. Unless something is being lost in translation, Iranian actors – pro or not – seem to be consummate performers, born into the school of naturalism. None of the performances here are to be faulted, least of all the very compelling lead characters. Taraneh Alisdoosti as Leyla is perhaps more watchable, partly due to her manic-pixie prettiness and her unpredictability, but writer-director-actor Haghighi as Kaveh seems more schooled, more assured, like his character’s persona. Esmaeel Khalaj is very memorable as the Old Man with the shack, whose sense of self-sufficiency and contentment is disarmingly sincere. All this is fascinating to watch and discuss, but if so, why should the film be satisfied with a modest reception?

Most comedians want to be funny and want to draw laughs from their audiences, one would assume. Successful stand-ups internalise this desire, they embody the effort and time they have invested in their art and their act. They and the act become inseparable, and even though we as audience members are aware that there is something at work beneath the comic brilliance – divinely inspired, calculated or both – we laugh and we say “this guy is hilarious.” Modest Reception is not that guy. As novel and intriguing as it is, it is clearly trying for something without ever becoming that something. Haghighi’s screenplay is sometimes engaging, sometime tedious, but always smart, and his direction is quite frankly laudable. The unforgiving bareness of the terrain and the way Haghighi and DP Houman Behmanesh capture it plays strongly into the film’s allusions to the psychological states of the characters. Unfortunately, there is a very muffled ring of inauthenticity to Modest Reception, and it is often these dull, subterranean ringings that raise the most suspicion.

Tope Ogundare

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