Sunday, January 13, 2013

Global Lens ’13: Modest Reception

The lesson of Brewster’s Millions may not have reached Iran yet.  As a result, a well-to-do urban couple will have a difficult time giving away a trunk full of cash in the hardscrabble north.  Their strange task comes with pre-set conditions and amounts, but their own personal issues and resentments will make it even more difficult in Mani Haghighi’s Modest Reception (trailer here), which screens today as part of the 2013 Global Lens collection premiering at MoMA.

The young soldier instantly regrets pulling over the Lexus.  An attractive woman and her somewhat older but distinguished looking companion are having one of those embarrassing arguments, in which they try to pull in innocent bystanders.  Stunned and bewildered by their theatrics, the guard finds himself holding a bag of cash as the two lunatics speed away, laughing hysterically.

For initially vague reasons, the man and woman are supposed to dispense four million rial bags throughout the forbidding border region.  The few remaining residents are instantly skeptical of the noisy outsiders offering money for nothing.  (Maybe they saw Irvin Kershner’s Flim Flam Man before the revolution.)  In a series of episodes, Leyla and Kaveh construct a little drama to convince the stolid northerners to take their cash, usually just to get the eccentric city folk out of their hair.  However, just when they have apparently succeeded, one of the two benefactors invariably starts resenting the hypocrisy or ingratitude of their recipients and starts playing cruel mind games with them. 

Beginning in a farcical tone, Reception smoothly segues into a rather dark and twisted absurdist territory.   The audience comes to assume Leyla and Kaveh have familial reasons for this exercise in madness, but it is hard to be one hundred percent certain considering how many lies we have heard from them.   Taraneh Alidoosti and Haghighi convincingly suggest decades of history between the two leads, earning considerable laughs and inducing a whole lot of wincing.

Reception is definitely a dialogue-driven film, but international viewers can easily appreciate the dynamic between the odd couple.  After all, phrases like “I told you so” and “I hope you’re happy now” translate quite readily.   However, the film’s allegorical hints are more obscure.  Like the films of Asghar Farhadi (with whom Haghighi has often collaborated), Reception portrays Iran’s class divide in unflinching terms.  It might also raise some eyebrows when Kaveh casually explains he only grabbed a bottle of contraband liquor rather than the full crate because the potential punishment if caught would only be a mere eighty lashes.  Yet, beyond its pessimistic view of the human condition, it is hard to read terribly much into their misadventures.

Haghighi’s performance in front of the camera is arguably more impressive his work behind the lens.  Still, he captures harsh, lonely environment of the provincial north.  Surprisingly, a track from the Canadian experimental jazz duo Feuermusik is heard during the opening and closing credits, but it is strictly ambient noise for the rest of the film.  Reception (taking its title from a brand of Iranian cookie seen fleetingly in the third act) may or may not entirely succeed at what it sets out to do, but it is engrossing stuff.  It is just impossible to look away from the scathing exchanges and wildly uncomfortable situations Haghighi and Alidoosti bring to life.  Recommended for those who follow Iranian cinema, Modest Reception screens this afternoon (1/13) and Saturday (1/26) at MoMA as part of the 2013 edition of Global Lens.