I’ve always been a massive fan of dark comedies – I’ve stopped using the term “black comedy” in an attempt to avoid ambiguity – but pure examples of the genre are (understandably) rare. There are plenty of films out there that will have bursts of dark comedy, but not the constant subversive attitude that goes with it. I prefer the comedies that set out with an agenda to make people laugh at something terrible and then keep applying pressure, and upping the ante, until each member of the audience finds their limit – if they have one. I like to think that through actively seeking out and watching so many of these films, I probably have a slightly higher tolerance than most, but the Iranian Modest Reception (Paziraie sadeh) is the first film in a long time to question where my upper limits for acceptable comedy end. And I love it all the more for doing so.
The film opens with two people pulling up at a checkpoint somewhere in the Iranian mountainside, not too far from a border. The driver is a woman named Leyla (Taraneh Alidoosti) and in the passenger seat sits a man with his arm in a cast named Kaveh (Mani Haghighi, who is also the film’s director, producer and co-writer). They bicker among themselves while an increasingly exasperated – and armed – guard keeps asking for their identification and driver’s license. The couple’s argument escalates and eventually spills to the outside of the vehicle. Then suddenly, before the guard (or even the audience) can process exactly what’s going on, the couple hurl a couple of large plastic bags at the guard’s feet, tell him to split it with his co-workers and drive off with the boot of their car still open, more money tumbling out as they go.
As the boot closes automatically, we see it as one of many symbols of wealth attached to these two, along with their nice clothes and iPhone from which they film all of their hijinks, ostensibly to have a good laugh about it later. It seems that the guard wasn’t the first to have a large bag of money forced upon him, and he certainly isn’t the last as the film follows a loose, episodic plot of the couple driving around the impoverished mountainside looking for more people to accept their generosity.
It turns out that this is actually harder than it sounds as most men are too proud to accept money for nothing. Their very next target says he neither wants nor needs the cash, and the couple have to work hard to get him to take anything at all – a reoccurring problem for most of their encounters.
One of the biggest questions is obviously “Why?” Yet during the film, it didn’t seem all that important. The origin of the money and the reason for its distribution feel irrelevant as this episodic film lives in the moment. Regardless, an explanation is offered later on, albeit in a way where it’s hard to tell if the truth is being told. I wouldn’t believe a word of it.
Modest Reception operates primarily as a character study of two individuals becoming increasingly disillusioned with their “work” and with each other. Leyla and Kaveh’s methods for distributing the money are the source of great comedy for the film; but as we progress, their antics become meaner, their intent much nastier and inevitably, the laughter becomes much sparser before disappearing altogether. There’s very little to laugh about in the closing few scenes as the film’s dark, dramatic intent comes to the forefront.
I find it hard to believe that one of the very best and very darkest of dark comedies in recent years comes out of Iran. I can imagine many will be turned off by what they might incorrectly identify as “tonal inconsistencies,” but there is an unease to Modest Reception present from the very start and it grows and grows until it completely consumes the film. If you love dark comedy, make this a must-see.