The Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who is under house arrest and has been banned from filmmaking since 2010 on the grounds of political dissent, starts “Taxi,” his clandestinely produced film, with a long take of the streets of Tehran, seen through the windshield of a car. It’s a shot that exudes love of the long-unseen face of the city and joy in merely being outdoors—and in moviemaking itself. Panahi is driving the car, pretending to be a cab driver, encountering strangers, acquaintances, and even a relative—and filming the encounters with a dashboard-mounted camera that he passes off as a security device.
“Taxi” is Jafar Panahi’s third film that he has made since his arrest and sentencing. He has transformed his work to match the radically transformed conditions of his life. Facing monstrous circumstances—a sentence of house arrest along with a twenty-year ban on filmmaking, giving interviews, and travelling outside the country—he responded with a movie of majestic insolence, “This Is Not a Film,” from 2011. He made this film mainly in the confines of his apartment, depicting himself there, facing the terms and implications of his sentence, and acting out the story of the dramatic movie that he’d have made if not banned. He was able to have “This Is Not a Film” seen worldwide by an equally audacious ploy: the film was smuggled out of Tehran in a flash drive embedded in a cake. Panahi followed it up with an intimate, paranoid, hallucinatory thriller, “Closed Curtain,” made in an isolated house, about the lives of Iranians under siege by the regime—including Panahi himself, who walks in on the action.
Now, in “Taxi,” he raises the stakes of his confinement even further, venturing outside his home, albeit in a bubble—the taxi itself—which he turns into a sort of mobile miniature movie studio, where he’s shielded from view and can hold public conversations in private, where he can film under controlled circumstances that enfold the wider and uncontrolled ones of the city at large.
Oppression has transformed Jafar Panahi’s art. Under the pressure of circumstances, he has turned from a classicist into a modernist, while at the same time transforming the very codes and tones of his frame-breaking aesthetic. He puts his face, his body, his voice, his own life into his film as an existential act of self-assertion against his effacement by the regime. Panahi turns the kind of reflexive cinema that, in the United States, would risk critical dismissal as narcissistic into a furious act of political defiance.
At the wheel of a taxi, Jafar Panahi picks up a pair of passengers, a man and a woman, and the man points to the dashboard-mounted camera and figures that it’s a security device. Panahi ironically agrees, at which point the discussion turns to the underlying concept of theft, the kinds of crimes that such a camera might be intended to deter—and to the kinds of draconian measures that the government might employ to deter them. Throughout the film, the squeak of the cranky pivot on which that camera is mounted signifies and accompanies Panahi’s simple, on-camera pan shots—he turns the camera to show what he wants, and that splendid sound, along with the shaky shift of the image, conjures the essence of cinematic determination.
The politics of image-making and image distribution are central to “Taxi.” Another passenger, named Omid, is a DVD bootlegger who knows Panahi, having provided him with copies of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” and Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.” Like Panahi, Omid trades in cinematic contraband, movies that are illegal for distribution in Iran. Omid is both a street-level freedom fighter and a regular video pirate who even boasts to Panahi, “I can bring you the dailies of films in the making.”
Religious law, or the abuse of religion by law, crops up throughout the film as an absurd intrusion into filmmaking itself. When Panahi picks up his niece Hana (who seems to be about eleven years old) at school, she pulls out a camera and talks to him about her school assignment to make a student film, citing the teacher’s list of legally stipulated guidelines—including the obvious ones requiring that women wear a hijab and banning contact between men and women, less obvious ones requiring that male heroes not wear a tie or have a Persian name, and the general demand to “avoid sordid realism.” As Hana later explains, her teacher said to “show what’s real but not real real … if reality is dark and unpleasant, not to show it.” Panahi answers, “There are realities they don’t want shown,” and Hana’s comeback is, “They don’t want to show it, but they do it themselves.”
While the car is pulled over and Panahi steps out for a moment, Hana attempts to make a documentary from the window of the car (Panahi puts her footage into his film), a small but revealing drama of street life. But her effort is thwarted by the recalcitrance of reality—as she films action that isn’t virtuous, she calls out to the person she’s filming and asks him to change his behavior for the purpose of her film. From the sequence’s playful innocence, Panahi extracts a superb twist of cinematic paradox: once a viewer sees Hana tweak events to promote virtue, all on-screen depictions of virtue risk appearing transparently false.
The movie’s loopiest comic sequence is also one of its quietly angriest ones. It involves two elderly women who are in a big hurry. They’re travelling to a shrine—a spring—with fish in a bowl. They believe that they need to put the fish in the water at a certain time in order to spare themselves certain doom. Here, Panahi presents a pair of charming innocents whose superstitious devotion represents the sort of banal piety that empowers the regime’s religious hypocrisy and righteous pretentions. Ultimately, Panahi finds a pretext to throw the elderly women out of his cab. Though he does so apologetically and respectfully, his contempt for their irrational fanaticism comes through clearly.
The two women make another virtual appearance in the film’s shocking climax, a cinematic jolt too mighty to spoil. Suffice it to say that Panahi knows that he’s the subject of relentless government surveillance, knows well the menace that he faces, and attributes it unsparingly to abusive religious authority. His last passenger is his lawyer, a woman who is herself a victim of persecution and who is equally aware of the menaces dangling like the sword of Damocles over their heads. (For all her forthright revelations of monstrous injustice, she also has a light, ironic, nearly saintly presence that graces the film like a song.)
Though Jafar Panahi is working under an official ban on filmmaking, his clandestine films are shown internationally and receive great acclaim (as did “Taxi,” which won the top prize, the Golden Bear, at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival). He surely knows that he is working—and, above all, living—at the sufferance of the Iranian government, which could withdraw it and imprison him, or worse, at a moment’s notice.
Jafar Panahi is a reasonable director; he depicts the exaggerations and absurdities of the regime and the contortions of behavior in response to rules and laws that are silly, contrary to reason. But now he sees these absurdities as a matter of life and death. His moderate opposition to the regime resulted in a radical punishment, which, in turn, has turned him into a radical filmmaker as well as a radical dissenter. “Taxi” is filled with grim and explicit contemplations of the looming threat of the death penalty, as well as a wide range of premonitions of death, threats of death, fears of death. Its subject is life in the crosshairs; it is, in effect, a found-footage horror film.