Modest Reception (Paziraie sadeh)

Iran (2012) Dir. Mani Haghighi

Leyla (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Kaveh (Mani Haghighi) are a couple from Tehran driving through the remote Iranian mountains, distributing bags of money to the various people they meet, often through deceptive altruism or by having them fulfil odd requests first.

Iranian cinema has come to the fore since Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar winning A Separation opened many eyes back in 2010. This and many films deal with many social and religious issues in contemporary Iran, often in a dramatic and sometimes cynical fashion. Modest Reception is an esoteric and wry comedy drama that offers a different perspective towards Iran and Iranian cinema although it maintains the familiar exploration of modern behaviour, this time looking at how the impoverished reacts to having money thrown at them.

The reason for what Leyla and Kevah are doing and where the money came from is partially revealed at the very end but one is left with suspicion that the story runs deeper. Occasionally Kevah speaks to his mother on their iPhone and the pair often refer to each other as brother as sister in their stories but never officially confirmed. The money must count into thousands of millions territory as they give away sacks full of millions at a time (although the rial is one of the least valuable currency’s in the world) yet they themselves don’t appear to be doing this for any reward of their own, instead they complete each exchange by filming it on their iPhone. Kevah spins a story early on about a cash settlement Leyla must make in lieu of a divorce but it’s clearly just one of the many elaborate but not implausible reasons for the generous alms they give out. They know they just can’t give out money without causing suspicion so they either concoct a fanciful story or adapt to a situation using their guile and boldness to make the exchange.

Along the way they stop a delivery truck and tell the drivers that they won the lottery, handing over ten million rial only for Kevah, posing as an official, to take umbrage when one of them says he will keep working! Elsewhere Leyla buys a lame mule from an old traveller to stop him from killing it while Kevah rewards some young children for being able to count (with some judicious cheating on his part). The targets appear to be random and decided on a whim but hints are dropped towards the end that maybe they were adhering to an agreed game plan, which leads to tensions arising and disagreements about their choices of recipients as well as methods of sealing the deal.

As fascinating as the premise is, Mani Haghighi – who wrote, directed and starred in this film – keeps any messages or meanings behind the story close to his chest. The dialogue between Leyla and Kevah gives few clues as to the true relationship between the two but philosophical differences are obvious. Kevah has a broken arm meaning Leyla does all the driving but that doesn’t stop him having his say and often calling the shots. While Leyla often uses emotionally blackmail to win her beneficiary over, such as claiming she is a vet in the case of the mule, Kevah goes further to manipulate his targets. In the last case he finds a man digging a hole to bury his dead baby daughter but Kevah tries to dissuade him by challenging his religious beliefs and making a suggestion that goes beyond throwing money at him.

If Haghighi is taking a swipe at western capitalism he is very subtle in doing do, making sure we notice that the car our suspicious do gooders are driving is a new Lexus, or the ubiquitous iPhone and US brands of cigarettes are always in shot. The poor people of the mountain never look upon their wealthy visitors askance nor do any signs of jealousy appear. Instead they all seem happy with their meagre lot as long as God is keeping them healthy and alive but Haghighi’s subtext remains buried under the whimsy of the story.

The stunning Taraneh Alidoosti has already proven herself as an outstanding dramatic actress in Asghar Farhadi’s works such as About Elly and Fireworks Wednesday but shows she has exceptional comic skills too. The opening scene is a tour de force demonstration of this as our roving couple stage an explosive argument before a befuddled border guard with pitch perfect timing and comic mannerisms. Later when the mood darkens Alidootsi reverts back to her dramatic self to great effect. Haghighi – a co-writer of Farhadi – wears many hats in this production yet still manages to keep up with his spitfire of a co-star albeit his delivery is more deadpan, making Kevah something of a straight man to her Leyla’s manic joker, but with a more cynical and much darker side to him. The pair creates a convincing chemistry that certainly gives the film added credence.

Shot among the chilling sparse austerity of the rocky Iranian mountains Modest Reception is a film that hooks the viewer despite not giving us much reason to. The difficult to read characters and oblique treatment of the film’s message and intent and the abrupt ending makes this a somewhat incomplete work but what it gives us is perversely entertaining film to offer an alternate look at a complex country. Whatever the political and theological issues are Iran is a unique and welcome voice in world cinema.