Active Ingredients: Slowly developing thematic implications
Side Effects: Handling of tones; Frustrating performances
[Modest Reception plays January 30th and 31st and The Boston Festival of Films from Iran at the MFA.]
Throughout the month of January, the MFA has been celebrating the diversity of Iranian film through its Boston Festival of Films from Iran. Here in America, we’re lucky if we’re able to see the films of festival regulars like Abbas Kiarostami or Jafar Panahi, but Iranian cinema outside the international art house mold is rarely, if ever, seen. Modest Reception is, I think, distinct from the formal characteristics of Kiarostami’s and Panahi’s films, yet it also operates outside the conventions of the Hollywood output we’re likely to see in January and February. It’s precisely this distance from our own cinematic traditions that makes a film series like the MFA’s so valuable, even if Modest Reception is largely unsuccessful.
The film, from director/writer/star Mani Haghighi, centers around a man and a woman from Tehran who venture into the Iranian countryside on a curious mission: to give away large bags of cash to whomever they encounter. Their task, however, proves to be harder than they’d imagined as the morals and values of the rural population ran counter to their own.
Initially, Haghighi seems concerned with the comedy of errors that arises out of this “charitable” endeavor, much like the farcical plots of My Man Godfry or Brewster’s Millions. The efforts of the two protagonists are met with broadly comedic expressions of disbelief from the locals, who can’t figure out why anyone would want to give them millions of dollars. The man and woman, too—smirking, condescending and frankly grating—can’t understand why anyone would turn down such an offer. The film’s criticism of their efforts, mysterious though they remain, is blunt and simplistic.
Slowly, however, Modest Reception begins to trade in its unsuccessful fish-out-of-water comedy for something darker and more troubling. As the man and woman encounter more characters along the film’s episodic route, and their patience wears thin, their misplaced charity turns into outright contempt. They force a poor laborer to promise not to share his new-found wealth with his needy brother, for example.
These decisions don’t feel well-motivated on a narrative level, but they do allow Haghighi to develop interesting ideas about the price of work and the value of our actions. Modest Reception‘s strange tonal shift is appropriately gradual (not to mention a welcomed diversion from its flat comedy), but its not handled with the precision or strength of conviction of a director like Bong Joon-ho. Despite these shortcomings, Modest Reception is a surprising film, and one that could spark an interest in discovering even more cinematic surprises, from Iran and elsewhere.