Jafar Panahi’s Taxi is a delightfully different film from what we’ve come to expect from the Iranian director since his 2010 house arrest. Unlike the warranted hostility and despair that tempered his most recent work, This Is Not a Film and Closed Curtain, the Jafar Panahi of Taxi is more prone to wisecracks and to even relent a smile. Taxi is by far the most buoyant of Panahi’s output, an exercise that finds the director take to the streets as an inept cabbie, striking up conversations with patrons in his own riff on Taxicab Confessions. But as is the case with all of his work, the initial documentary quality aspects of the picture are blurred, where fiction and reality intermingle to explore the overwhelming political forces that not only afflict Panahi, but all of Iran.
Panahi’s swivel dash cam is pointed outward, at first, to the bustling city streets of Tehran. We’re at a stoplight and the city moves with the kind of hurried gestures found on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, motorists and pedestrians entering in and out of the frame at a moments notice. This manic energy is mirrored within the confines of the cab itself, as Panahi accepts passengers with genial regard. In and out they go as the dash cam is now positioned inward, where a slew of contentious debates from the ethics of capital punishment to a Reservoir Dogs-esque moments sees a wounded motorist bleeding out in the backseat of the cab, asking for a camera to film his will to insure that his wife is the designated beneficiary of his estate.
A great deal of filmmaking wisdom is imparted in Panahi’s cab, whereupon a film student passenger confesses of his love for the cinema and literature, with Panahi quick to suggest that those stories have already been told; but rather point his lens in places that no one has ventured. This kind of boldness in filmmaking in easier said than done however, as shown in scenes with Panahi and his niece, an aspiring filmmaker. The precocious youth outlines a school filmmaking project that must adhere to the stringent rules set out by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidelines. The laundry list of offenses and suggestions include the portrayal of heroes, which, when Panahi leaves his niece to her own devices, becomes especially problematic as she begins filming a boy, unbeknownst to her subject. In effect, the problems facing filmmakers is that their censure results in a false reality, a false Iran.
Yet these social and political criticisms are sketched, most strikingly, as not a point of contention for just Panahi, but the broader Iranian populace. The elegance and introspection that typifies Panahi’s work, for the first time since 2006’s Offside, accounts for something broader and all encompassing. He looks outward through the windshield of his cab not with the anger that distinguished This Is Not a Film or the discouragement of Closed Curtain, but with a smile that suggests that while he may struggle just like every man, the social and political forces that attempt to censure his voice have not dampened his spirits.