A perversely fascinating drama about a man and a woman making their way through a war-torn, mountainous region, dispensing large sums of money in plastic bags from the back of their SUV, “Modest Reception” is extremely well made, eminently watchable, but not especially likable or satisfying. The likability factor comes into play because, as part of their mysterious game, the arrogant, amoral protagonists attach sadistic conditions to their handouts, humiliating (and worse) their beneficiaries. Helmer Mani Haghighi’s original, disturbing picture feels more universal than particularly Iranian, and as such is ripe for remake; further fests and niche arthouses beckon.
Swiftly accelerating from zero to 100, the pretitle sequence neatly epitomizes the film’s action as Leyla (Taraneh Alidoosti, “About Elly”) stops her Lexus to comply with a border guard (Saeed Changizian) while continuing a nasty, name-calling argument with her passenger, Kaveh (helmer Haghighi), who has his arm in a cast. The couple’s fight escalates and moves outside the vehicle, to the complete bewilderment of the guard, and ends with him receiving a blow to the face as Leyla and Kaveh throw four moneybags at him and drive off, laughing wildly.
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The relationship between these two well-dressed city dwellers is not clear. They could be husband and wife, brother and sister, or even boss and secretary, and indeed at various times they adopt all these personas, while baiting and sniping at each other with a casual familiarity. The reasons behind their behavior are even murkier. Despite phone calls from someone interested in documentation of their munificence (they occasionally comply, with iPhone videos), they seem to change their m.o. whenever it suits them.
The one thing that’s clear is the pleasure the condescending Kaveh seems to derive from tormenting those he gives money to. He gets more sadistic with each encounter; although it may seem hard to top his cruel treatment of two truck-driving brothers (he first promises a fortune to one and than withdraws it in favor of the other, forcing the lucky brother to swear he will not share it with anyone in his family), a subsequent confrontation reveals him to be even more ruthless.
Co-writers Haghighi and Amir-Reza Koohestani not only confound expectations that the story will add up to something greater than the sum of its parts; they withhold any deeper symbolic meaning. To leave viewers so unsatisfied might be interpreted as the ultimate act of authorial sadism. Nevertheless, “Modest Reception” (the title derives from a brand of tea biscuit briefly glimpsed toward the end of the film) rates as Haghighi’s strongest helming work to date. As a thesp, he puts his stubbly, George Clooney-esque good looks to fine use, and ignites sparks with Alidoosti, who is thrilling in a challenging, uncharacteristic role.
Talented lenser Houman Behmanesh perfectly captures the beauty, danger and despair inherent in the unspecified mountain setting, while snatches of discordant, bluesy jazz from Feuermusik’s Jeremy Strachan and David Weinkauf amp up the energy, and focus attention at the beginning and end.