“Jafar Panahi’s Taxi” is the third film Panahi has created in defiance of a 2010 government ban imposed on his work as a director, and for that reason alone, this anti-censorship statement and Iranian-condition dramedy is noteworthy. It’s also 82 minutes of pithy, humane, enjoyable cinema by any standard.
As with Panahi’s “This Is Not a Film” and “Closed Curtain,” the movie isn’t a multi-location affair with actors, like the director’s “The Circle” or “Crimson Gold.” Currently under house arrest on unfounded charges of making antigovernment propaganda, Panahi now secretly shoots films that slyly circumvent the traditional definitions of filmmaking.
The fact-infused, docu-style, Tehran-set story transpires entirely inside a taxicab with camera equipment installed on the dashboard. Playing a fictional version of himself, Panahi (wearing a beret and a Zen-like smile that can’t quite mask his underlying anxiety) is driving the vehicle, badly.
Vignettes featuring passengers who represent the diversity of Iran make up the action.
Omid, who sells bootleg DVDs, recognizes Panahi as a former customer. He doesn’t buy the taxi ruse and quickly ascertains that Panahi is making a movie.
Two superstitious elderly women experience a calamity involving their goldfish bowl.
Panahi’s talky preteen niece reveals that she, too, is making a movie, as a classroom project. The girl rattles off the sometimes absurd rules she must follow. She must capture the truth, but only certain shades of it. “Sordid reality” isn’t allowed.
A rose-carrying human-rights lawyer, en route to visit a young woman arrested for attending a volleyball game alone, worries about the risk Panahi is taking. She makes pointed remarks, which she then worries may constitute “sordid realism.”
This isn’t the kind of movie Panahi would be making if he were allowed to work freely. Some vignettes are more effective than others, as are some of the performers (for safety reasons, none are credited).
Yet the film brims with vitality, humor and import. Panahi makes significant points about the government’s failure to crush him and control his art form. Passengers cite scenes and characters from Panahi’s banned films. Everyone from Panahi’s niece to a seriously wounded man dictating his last will and testament into a cellphone is making a movie of some sort. Omid views his bootleg DVDs as a service. “Without me, no Woody Allen,” he boasts.
A hard-hitting ending closes the film, which shapes up as a brazenly clever act of civil disobedience and a compelling, humanist ride.
While one hopes the Iranian government will release Panahi soon, it’s good to see him at the wheel in any form.
Jafar Panahi’s Taxi
Three and a half stars
Starring Jafar Panahi
Written and directed by Jafar Panahi
Running time 1 hour, 22 minutes