(Dir. Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2015)
Back in the Driver’s Seat
If the one-two punch of modern masterpieces This Is Not a Film and Closed Curtain are any indication, it seems the devastating circumstances preventing filmmaker Jafar Panahi from continuing to create have not only failed to keep him from doing so, but have also strengthened his artistry. I’ve written at length on the inherent worth of the director’s five excellent films prior to his twenty-year ban from filmmaking, but none of those early works reach the levels of profundity, poignant self-reflexivity, or daring craftsmanship of his two recent films shot in defiance of the government intent on keeping him silent. It should come as no surprise, then, that Panahi is at it again. Taxi, his third feature since the ban, is another personal diary entry of an artist unable to express himself freely, and yet it radiates a boldness absent from its direct predecessors that a more hopeful Panahi only hinted at in the final moments of Closed Curtain. Gone is the extreme secrecy surrounding the production of these illegal films, gone are the names of the strategically credited co-directors, and gone is the tiptoeing around Panahi’s actual role in all of it. This is a film by Jafar Panahi, and he’s unapologetically back in the driver’s seat.
Appropriately, then, Taxi finds Panahi quite literally in the driver’s seat of the film’s titular vehicle as he roams around Tehran picking up a variety of intriguing characters whilst once again painting a vivid portrait of the city he calls home. (Comparisons of form to Taste of Cherry and Ten are inevitable, but they stop there, for Panahi no longer works in the shadow of Kiarostami and is an artist worth being evaluated on his own merits.) A swiveling dashcam captures interior conversations as well as the action on the streets outside, thus the entirety of the film is shot from within this set on wheels. Predictably, Taxi follows no linear plot but consists of vignettes nearly resembling mini comedy sketches as Panahi’s various passengers fill the frame with their eccentricities and cross-sectioned stories – a pair bickering over conflicting ideologies, an overeager pirated video vendor, a bleeding man and his hysterical wife who decides to keep his video-recorded will after he recovers (just in case), two superstitious ladies with a couple of goldfish, and Panahi’s own niece Hana, to name a few.
References to Panahi’s previous work abound both explicitly as his subjects recall his past films and in clever visual allusions – the aforementioned goldfish harkening back to the director’s debut The White Balloon, early dialogue lifted from Crimson Gold, picking up his niece from a school resembling that of Mina’s in The Mirror, mention of a young woman imprisoned for sneaking into a public sporting event as in Offside. Both This Is Not a Film and Closed Curtain entertained such references as well, but where those two mourned their creator’s inability to create what he wanted to create, Taxi plays more like a greatest hits collection; a deserved victory lap for all that’s come before.
It’s not all lighthearted reminiscing, however, and in its back half Taxi explicitly takes the Iranian government to task for the continued injustice toward filmmakers across the nation bound by the ridiculous guidelines slyly read verbatim by Panahi’s niece who’s studying film in school. Hana’s film teacher dutifully outlines what constitutes a distributable film – those featuring head-covered women, no tie-wearing men with good Islamic names, and no politics or relevant social issues to speak of. With her cheap digital camera, Hana commits to making one such distributable film that avoids the “sordid realism” that the government unreasonably fears. She begins shooting the innocuous sight of newlyweds emerging from their wedding, but inevitably, reality gets in the way. A young boy collecting trash swoops in to snatch a fallen wad of cash from the groom’s pocket, and Hana implores him to return it to provide upstanding societal moral fiber for her distributable film. When he fails to rectify his criminal deed, Hana is disappointed by her own failure to produce an acceptable piece of filmmaking.
Cleverly, Panahi posits Hana as a stand-in for himself. The trash-collecting boy is not unlike the type of subject he has been interested in throughout his socially conscious career. It’s not difficult to imagine Panahi’s defiance speaking volumes through this short sequence. He’ll never kowtow to his oppressors by producing disingenuous, government-approved garbage just to have his work distributed in his own country, but he’ll also refuse to keep quiet. Taxi is an explicitly political document as one character mutters toward the end, “they don’t want it shown, but they do it themselves” in reference to the gross injustices committed by the very government bent on shielding its people from ever witnessing such realities. In a time of seeming progress with regards to Iran and its long-standing Western enemies as prisoners are released and nuclear deals are negotiated, Panahi’s film is an apt reminder that this great nation has a long way to go in restoring peace and justice.
The film ends with some of the most stunning imagery of Panahi’s career as a rose rests on the dashboard, the windshield of the car providing a frame, as the camera takes in the bustling streets of Tehran all around them. The film’s final static shot finds Panahi and Hana emerge from the taxi and exit the frame followed by the startling sight of carjackers who break into the car, disable the dashcam, and mutter something barely decipherable about a missing memory stick. It’s a brilliantly ambiguous finale that adds fuel to the debate over the blurred duality of fiction and reality that marks much of Panahi’s impressive oeuvre. Most of Taxi is surely very carefully staged – just as This Is Not a Film and Closed Curtain were before it – and yet it’s still probably too real for those who fear it. After the narrative-busting Closed Curtain that solidified its director’s reputation as one of the greats working today, Taxi may seem to some as a bit of a letdown, a minor work treading now-familiar territory. But, I hope his latest isn’t seen as merely thematic leftovers. It’s an important film and an important statement for its creator. He’s opened the curtains that threatened to extinguish his blossoming career, and he’s made a public declaration that he has no intention of giving up the driver’s seat ever again.