One may be initially struck by the lighter-than-expected tone of Jafar Panahi's Taxi, the third film he's made in spite of the government-ordered limitations imposed on his filmmaking. In contrast to the poignant melancholy of This Is Not a Film and the more intellectualized meta-movie surreality of Closed Curtain, Taxi features, as one of its opening scenes, an exchange between two cab-riding passengers that verges on the comic even as it touches on deeper issues of human empathy. It doesn't take long, though, for Panahi's usual thematic obsessions to rear their head, as we discover that a beret-donning Panahi himself is driving this particular cab, and that those two passengers are, in fact, actors, as a new passenger—a video-store clerk/DVD pirate who recognizes the director from seeing him rent movies at his store—realizes upon recognizing one passenger's parting lines as being lifted straight from Panahi's Crimson Gold. Even then, though, the fourth-wall-breaking revelation is handled in a breezy manner—until the airiness is brutally interrupted when a bloodied passenger is brought into his cab and Panahi is thrust into a situation in which getting him and his terrified wife to the nearest hospital means life or death.
Such whiplash contrasts—between reality and self-reflexivity, between light comedy and heavy (albeit low-key and internal) drama—characterize much of the rest of Taxi, a film that takes its time to reveal its thematic and emotional depths while refusing to raise its voice above a whisper. The taxi-driving setup recalls Abbas Kiarostami's Ten, with Panahi's film similarly built on encounters between a driver and his passengers. But whereas Kiarostami used a minimalist style to explore a perspective outside of his own, Panahi, in keeping with his recent work, turns the camera on himself and his own government-imposed creative struggles—a concern that gradually broadens into a wider commentary on Iranian society as a whole.
The heart of the film lies in its second-half passages featuring Panahi's niece, who's taking a film class at school and has been assigned to make a short. As she recounts it to her uncle, though, in her class, she has been taught rules to make her film “distributable”—rules that reflect the kind of images the Iranian government deems worthy of projection (an emphasis on clearly delineating good and evil, a de-emphasis on what they call “sordid realism,” and so on). In essence, it's these kinds of rules that Panahi himself has continued to try to circumvent through his art; films like the aforementioned Crimson Gold, The Circle, and Offside evince a humanist perspective that pointedly refuses to see people in absolutes. In Taxi, his niece gets a glimpse of the kind of moral complexity her uncle regularly dramatizes, seen through the disappointment she experiences when she films a young boy stealing money from a groom and fails to convince him to give the money back—because the boy's doing so would fulfill the Iranian requirement for a “distributable” film to feature a hero who redeems himself at the end.
Such a sequence isn't a one-off, however, but part and parcel of a film deeply concerned with the way cinematic images are presented and controlled in Iran today. In such a context, of course Panahi's DVD-pirate friend would justify his illegal side trade a “cultural activity”: He's helping to spread images that would otherwise never see the light of day in that country. But, as ever with Panahi, Taxi isn't a mere topical polemic: His interest in the state of Iranian cinema today is bound up with his interest in cinema as a whole. “I think all movies are worth seeing,” he says at one point to a curious film-directing student/DVD-pirate customer, even if he later tells the student that he feels that the toughest thing about filmmaking is coming up with ideas since “all films have already been made, and all books have already been written.” In the end, though, for all its playfully self-aware ruminations on images and cinema, the most memorable moment in Taxi is a relative throwaway, in which Panahi suddenly hears a passing voice and confides in a passenger, “I thought I heard my interrogator.” In that one brief but tremblingly poignant line, Panahi not only evokes a personal trauma that continues to haunt him to this day, but implicitly suggests the reason that he continues to create art in the first place, despite the restrictions imposed on him by the Iranian government: to try to make sense of his ordeal, to exorcise his resulting demons.
Berlinale runs from February 5—15.