In his latest feature, Taxi, Iran’s bête noire, Jafar Panahi has painted a bittersweet portrait of quotidian life under a draconian regime. The entirety of the movie takes place inside a taxi, shot from a “hidden” camera embedded on the dash, with Panahi posing as a driver.
The first couple of passengers sets the tone, as a man, an avowed “mugger,” condescends a female teacher’s idea that society must seek to rectify the causal issues behind theft. He says thieves should be hung.
Panahi’s next passenger immediately recognizes the director, and exploits Panahi’s notoriety to hawk banned DVDs. There’s a lot of talk about cinema in this metamovie, in which Panahi plays himself. A film student who buys a bootleg says, “I’ve seen most of the classics and read a lot of books but I can’t find an interesting subject.” Panahi seems to have found his. Though at a cost: In 2010, Panahi was arrested and banned from filmmaking for twenty years.
When Panahi’s joined by his tween niece, censorship becomes a major theme in Taxi. Prefacing with a description of some “unscreenable” footage she shot—an Afghan suitor being beat up by a young woman’s father—the sassy niece describes some criteria for a government approved film: No criminal acts or violence, everyone must be dressed appropriately, the good guys must be named after (Islamic) saints.
Although we’re curious whether the passengers are in on it or oblivious to the “hidden” camera, too many happy accidents abound for Taxi to be a pure work of candid camera. What’s charming is the realistic way in which the conversations unfold and the cool, sometimes deadpan way in which Panahi reacts. Perhaps he’s the only one acting.
By Alec Julian & Carrie White