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If the answer to the question, “Who wants to be a millionaire?” seems obvious, it’s anything but that in the tongue-in-cheek Paziraie Sadeh (Modest Reception), testing how far the impoverished inhabitants of a mountainous Iranian border area are willing to sell out for a fat bag of rials offered by two rich loonies from the city. Director-actor Mani Haghighi and Taraneh Alidoosti, among the stars in Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly, pull out the stops in an absurd but engrossing piece of cinematic theater that has high points and hard points, but is difficult to walk out on. Tucked away in Berlin’s Forum sidebar, this is by far the director’s most daring work and deserves international fest play, though its unflinching study of inexcusable characters doesn’t leave the best taste in the mouth. It will be released in Iran later this year.
Haghighi is a frequent co-writer and actor for recent Iranian Oscar winner Farhadi, and while they have a common interest in middle-class dramas full of moral ambiguity (Fireworks Wednesday and About Elly both fit into this category, as does A Separation), Haghighi the director has shown a parallel interest in absurdist comic dramas, most notably his 2006 festival hit Men at Work. Raising the stakes, Modest Reception recounts an increasingly cruel game that Leyla (Alidoosti) and her companion Kaveh (Haghighi) play with a station wagon full of money.
Setting the scene is a brilliantly shot comic opener that starts the game over-the-top, in a tone which only gets shriller and wilder as the story goes on. At a road block on a lonely snow-bound mountain, a poor young soldier uncertain of his authority — practically a stock Iranian film character — stops the city slickers’ car. The attractive, saucy young woman behind the wheel and her good-looking passenger with a broken arm are in the midst of a fast and furious argument, with shocking language used on both sides. To get the soldier off their backs, they toss a couple bags of cash out the window, drive off, and then have a good laugh about their made-up argument at his expense. Kaveh has shot the whole thing on his iPhone so they can childishly enjoy it all over again.
Their next “victim” is a dignified old-timer manning a make-shift road-side stand. Try their best, they can’t get him to accept their money, which they qualify as “alms to the poor.” Even so, their passing is the kiss of death for the old fellow. Leyla has more luck at a coffee shop, where she leaves a bag in the john, while Kaveh unloads cash on some local kids in exchange for firewood, which they need and he doesn’t.
Though the set-up seems destined to repeat itself, the punchy script by Haghighi and Amir-Reza Koohestani has devilish twists that can’t be predicted. Gradually the black comedy gives way to queasy drama, after these whimsical devils encounter a man whose mule has broken its leg. He is about to shoot it to put it out of its misery, when Leyla poses as a compassionate vet and Kaveh buys his gun, leaving the animal dying on the road.
The reprehensible, immoral conduct of the heroes keeps the viewer from ever finding a comfortable spot to watch the proceedings, which are funny and pathetic by turns. In addition, Kaveh seems increasingly out of his head, as evident in a stomach-churning scene of pure evil when he bargains with two young truck-drivers. Yet this is nothing compared to what he proposes to a man he finds digging a grave for his infant daughter.
Though the closing scenes work pretty well in bringing the story to some kind of conclusion, where does it all lead? Like Men at Work, the screenplay seems to promise some kind of symbolic subtext, but symbolic of what? The film’s inability to take its fable-like set-up to a deeper level is its real Achilles heel. The puzzling title Modest Reception, by the way, is a brand of Iranian cookies that appears briefly – signifying nothing, apart from the vain hope it has some redemptive meaning.
In the end, it’s an actors’ film serving up two very juicy roles for Haghighi as the cynical sadist Kaveh and Alidoosti as the deliciously spoiled, enterprising Leyla who may be his sister, though the web of lies they spin leaves room for doubt. Apart from the fun parts, which they handle with easy lightness, the scene of his diabolical taunting in the cemetery and her finally taking responsibility for the mule are chilling performance pieces.
Shot in a desolate region of rock and snow in Iranian Kurdistan, the film deliberately leaves its setting anonymous and the nearby border unnamed: the better to describe a wholly interior hell.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum)
Cast: Taraneh Alidoosti, Mani Haghighi
Director: Mani Haghighi
Screenwriters: Mani Haghighi, Amir-Reza Koohestani
Producer: Mani Haghighi
Director of photography: Houman Behmanesh
Production designer: Amir-Hossein Ghodsi
Editor: Hayedeh Safiyari
Sales Agent: Iranian Independents
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