Somewhere, in the corner of my mind, the information about Jafar Panahi’s predicament was lying around unguarded. His 2010 jail sentence and twenty year ban from filmmaking were a result of what was deemed as propaganda against the Iranian government. Obviously, it has not hindered him in producing three movies since, all smuggled outside the country and released at the Cannes and Berlin festivals before receiving wider distribution. The story of the man is fascinating enough, but it is his artistic and humanistic sensibilities that make Taxi a memorable experience.
Filmed via a number of small cameras, some fixed within the taxi itself, some carried around by other protagonists, the story sees Panahi acting as a cab driver and encountering pieces of the Iranian Weltanschauung. The irony of his position is highlighted as his first passenger criticizes his geographical orientation, noticing that something must have gone seriously wrong for Panahi in order for him to have to resort to something he has no clue about. And after a short argument between passengers about whether stealing the wheels off a car should warrant the death penalty or not, “just to send a message”, you get the sense of how easily people become desensitized to such matters if only they are faced with them frequently enough. Paradoxically, the man suggesting this course of action is a “freelancer” himself, but more of a Robin Hood mold, which apparently should exempt him from a similar punishment.
This contradiction between wrong and right is explored throughout the journey, as Panahi encounters a series of colourful characters: a man selling pirated international films (who actually recognizes the director and takes quick advantage of him), a woman weeping over her dying husband, two older women fighting for their lives, an old neighbour who had recently been the victim of a robbery, a woman suffering a similar fate of marginalization due to the her political views, and Panahi’s niece, who is just being introduced to what “publishable films” are in Iran.
Panahi strikes a fine balance between some more comical aspects of Iranian life and the very dire need for self expression, that is severely limited. The humanism that pervades Taxi poses the same question repeatedly: what causes crime and who is a criminal within Iranian society? Drawing from a well of personal experience, he manages to create an endearing context for all his protagonists and their tales and it feels like he is taking us by the hand and guiding us, not so much physically, as emotionally. His smile spreads these emotional cues, from affection to sympathy, confusion and intense discomfort, and this gives off the sensation of being joined by a friend throughout this journey.
The worst that can be said is that the scripting of events does occasionally feel a bit heavy handed, in order to condense all the experience in what is ultimately a very short film. And while generally avoiding the lure of leaning too heavily on caricature, it ends on a slightly underwhelming artistic note.
But those are all the complaints I have to make. I very much enjoyed Taxi and gathering from the vibe around me, so did many of the other people watching it. While I feel the focus should generally be on the art, more than on the artist, here’s hoping that Panahi will have the chance to one day echo the affection he receives and generates in festival venues around the world, by having the freedom to openly appear alongside Iranian artists and their uncensored visions.
Originally posted on imdb.