Film Review: Taxi

Unlike 'This Is Not a Film' and 'Closed Curtain,' banned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s 'Taxi' is an exercise in self-pity that will test the limits of his most sympathetic audiences.
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Taxi is the third feature from writer-director Jafar Panahi since the Iranian government banned him from making films. Under house arrest, he used his homes as sets for the first two, This Is Not a Film (2011), shot in his Tehran apartment, and Closed Curtain (2013), filmed at his beach house. His set in Taxi, ostensibly a real Tehran cab, is mobile, yet measurably smaller. Its dashboard camera films the passengers, some of whom recognize their famous driver. Panahi is the cabbie, and metaphorically speaking, he is in the driver’s seat, directing the movie.

The pretense that Panahi picks up passengers randomly is quickly dispensed with after the filmmaker stops for a DVD dealer who remembers his order for Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep. That sprawling, 196-minute film is about a former actor who bemoans his past glory and now imagines himself as an underappreciated intellectual. Actually, he is a vapid, self-indulgent guy, and Bilge Ceylan’s movie is a bore. While Panahi is less verbose than the Turkish filmmaker, and not nearly as rebarbative as his protagonist, he teeters at the edge of self-pity in Taxi.

The passengers, who sometimes come in pairs, represent a broad spectrum of Tehran society—as well as the recurring themes in Panahi’s work. First, a female teacher and a working-class man debate the country’s execution rate, a result of Sharia law, which he supports and she dismisses. Various aspects of the effect of these laws, and of tyranny, arise in all of Panahi’s films, including The Mirror (1997), which contemplates the nature of power. Class differences in Tehran figure most prominently in Crimsom Gold (2003). Later, this discussion is expanded upon when a human-rights lawyer enters the cab. She has been banned from working because she defends female victims of Sharia law, a subject Panahi addresses directly in The Circle (2000). All of the passengers, especially the DVD dealer who twice refers to his complete collection of Panahi’s films, most of which are banned, are set dressing for what is actually the filmmaker’s lamentation of his admittedly miserable circumstances.

In This Is Not a Film, which is a documentary, Panahi illustrates his daily life under house arrest. His doppelganger is his daughter’s pet iguana who, like him, is trapped in the apartment and prevented from exercising his natural instincts. The protagonist in Closed Curtain is a paranoid screenwriter on the run from authorities, perhaps because he has committed some crime, but also because he wants to save his dog. The animals have been declared “unclean” by Islamic fundamentalists, and are being rounded up and killed. The writer is obviously a stand-in for Panahi, who later appears as himself. Taxi harkens back to This Is Not a Film in the sense that the writer-director’s intentions lie in a central and sustaining metaphor, in this case the taxi itself.

There is never any pretense that Taxi is comprised only of the footage from the dashboard camera, since the first shot of the movie is through the windshield of the cab as Panahi approaches a busy intersection. (The intersection may or may not be a metaphor for the filmmaker’s predicament.) In contrast to the relative freedom the taxi affords him through the broad vista of the windshield, and in the fact that he is not confined to his house, Panahi’s inner life is represented by the diminishing space of the taxi in comparison to his homes, and by the fixed camera, the key object of his work which is no longer under his control.

While one expects a filmmaker of Panahi’s caliber to devise clever methods to overcome the terrible restrictions he endures, and to create art with virtually no means, in Taxi he achieves only slyness, and that with touches of pedantry. Even when comic relief appears with Hana, Panahi’s pint-sized niece—she has aspirations of becoming a filmmaker—a didactic discussion unfolds about “non-offensive” films that pass muster with the clerics. The effort represented in Panahi’s first two films under the ban, of finding very different and rather brilliant allegories for his impossible predicament, has reached its conclusion in Taxi.

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