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With: Jafar Panahi
Written by: Jafar Panahi
Directed by: Jafar Panahi
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Persian, with English subtitles
Running Time: 82
Date: 10/30/2015

Jafar Panahi's Taxi (2015)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Gift of Cab

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi looks relaxed onscreen in Jafar Panahi's Taxi, although he has no reason in the world to be that way. He's one of a few genuine outlaw directors in the history of cinema. Though his career began well enough, with the wonderful films The White Balloon (1995) and The Mirror (1997), he ran into trouble on his third film The Circle (2000). Unable to get the movie approved by the Iranian government, he smuggled it out of the country for film festival showings and an eventual 2001 U.S. release (where it was one of the best movies of that year). Crimson Gold (2003) and Offside (2006) followed, but then Panahi's luck ran out. He was arrested for creating anti-government propaganda. He served some jail time, but a petition of world filmmakers eventually helped to get him released. Today, he is forbidden to leave the country (some reports say he was under house arrest, but the New York Times recently confirmed that this is not the case). And, starting in 2010, he was slapped with a 20 year-ban on filmmaking.

Nonetheless, he has now made three films under the ban, each one shot clandestinely with small cameras. The powerful This Is Not a Film (2012) was a blend of fact and fiction that showed Panahi under house arrest (perhaps the source of the rumor?) and planning a film that he could never make. Closed Curtain (2014) came next, although I was unable to see it; to the best of my knowledge, it never screened here in the Bay Area. Jafar Panahi's Taxi shows the director in a more positive mood, perhaps even hopeful. Rather than cooped up somewhere, the movie takes place in the streets of Tehran. It seems to have been shot with a single camera, mounted on the dashboard of a taxi. Sometimes the camera looks straight ahead and captures the streets, buildings and people passing by. Sometimes it films the driver's seat, with Panahi playing himself posing as a taxi driver. Sometimes it films the passenger seat, most notably when Panahi picks up his niece from school. (We don't know if it's his real niece or a young actress; out of necessity, the film has no credits.)

The movie begins with an argument over crime. A female teacher in the back seat argues that criminals might steal things because they are in need. In the passenger seat, a man — who later reveals himself to be a mugger by trade — argues that to steal from poor people is a disdainful crime worthy of punishment by death. They get out, and a third man recognizes Panahi; he's a dealer in black market videos, and has delivered such titles as Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and Midnight in Paris to Panahi. Panahi drives the man to an appointment; the customer asks Panahi for his opinion, "are any of these worth seeing?" Panahi replies that he thinks any movie is worth seeing.

So far, as our two major themes, we have crime and movies, which an interesting connection. And, in Panahi's case, making movies actually was a crime. Moving on, we come to two curious passengers, two aggravated old ladies carrying a fish bowl. Following some kind of ritual or superstition, they are late, racing to get to a certain stream by noon to release the fish; if not, they could both die. The fishbowl breaks, and Panahi rescues the creatures with a plastic bag and some water from a jug. Then he sends the ladies on their way with another, actual taxi driver. He does this because he's late picking up his niece.

The niece is disappointed because Panahi is late and because he has picked her up in the cab. (She has boasted to her friends about her famous director uncle.) She, too, is working on a film for class, and the teacher has provided a list of filmmaking rules. As the girl reads the rules, Panahi just smiles. Other episodes include Panahi picking up a man after an accident. He lies, bleeding while his wife holds him and cries. The man borrows Panahi's phone to make a video of his last will and testament. Later, the woman calls: the man is OK, but she'd still like a copy of the video ("you never know what the future holds."). We also meet an old neighbor of Panahi's, and a woman holding a batch of roses, with more discussions of crime and punishment. The movie ends with a positively sublime image, ironic and profound, showing a good deed going punished, with a rose and other dashes of red in the unmoving frame.

So, while seemingly portraying a realistic episode of a day in the life of a cab driver, Panahi has managed to whip up a brilliant discourse on crime and movies. In another layer, he has technically committed a crime by making this movie; he could face more jail time for violating his ban. Jafar Panahi's Taxi is a little like some of the best self-reflexive Iranian classics, including Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up (1990), Life and Nothing More (1991), and Through the Olive Trees (1994), and Mohsen Makhmalbaf's A Moment of Innocence (1996), as well as Panahi's own Mirror — except that there's a great deal more at stake here.

Using the small camera, disguised as a security device, Panahi shows that everyone is filming and being filmed at all times. There are many levels of artifice and reality in our films, and while some films are entertaining, some are dangerous as well; they can reveal things we might not otherwise see. And, of course, while watching, we begin to think about how and when making films are a crime. We begin to think about the government that doesn't want Panahi making films. Why? Because it is afraid of what he will show. The argument can be wrapped up in concepts of tradition or morals, but it basically boils down to fear. And here is Panahi looking not afraid, not tense, not depressed or distraught, but relaxed. And perhaps even hopeful. Perhaps Jafar Panahi's Taxi will show that films aren't necessarily things to be feared, but rather things to be experienced.

Kino Lorber released a fine Blu-ray edition in 2016, preserving the movie's video cinematography and sound. It comes with a trailer, and also a ten-page liner notes essay by film professor Jamsheed Akrami about Panahi's situation.

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