Jafar Panahi finds yet another formal device to represent the pressures facing his filmmaking career by situating his latest film entirely within the confines of a taxi that he drives around Tehran. Using a dashcam on a swivel mount, the Iranian auteur records the passengers he picks up around town, at once rolling with and guiding their conversations in subtle displays of his directorial collaboration. Though the filmmaker himself occasionally leaves the cab, the camera remains inside the car, an obvious metaphor for the limitations imposed on him by the government.
Nonetheless, none of Panahi’s other features made in the wake of his arrest and sentencing feels half so free as this one. Having navigated, first, despair in This Is Not a Film and, then, outrage in Closed Curtain, the writer-director finds some degree of happiness in Taxi, perhaps in part because he enjoys too much public awareness to be punished for flouting his filmmaking ban. The Panahi seen throughout the film via the cab’s dashcam is almost always smiling, always ready to make small talk with his passengers.
As with the rest of Panahi’s oeuvre, the film blends reality and fiction, and the people who get into his taxi are clearly speaking at least partially scripted lines that always find ways to highlight various repressions and oppressions of Iran’s regime. One passenger is a bootlegger who’s personally brought banned films to Panahi, and he has the director ferry him to his deliveries. As he rides, the man defends his livelihood for allowing curious Iranians to see great foreign films, especially students at the state-run film school. And in the film’s most harrowing sequence, Panahi must drive the bloodied victim of a motorcycle crash to the hospital as his wife wails in terror. The man, losing consciousness, asks to borrow the driver’s iPhone so he can record his last will and testament and leave a record that he wishes to bequeath his house to her, as state law defaults all possessions to the closest male relative.
Such scenes recall Panahi’s earlier work, in which people obey authorities for their own safety, but never fail to question why they must do so. Though Panahi shapes the dialogue of his non-professional actors, he nonetheless suggests an ironic upside to his actual and metaphorical confinement in how comfortable people feel talking about politics in his private spaces. This can be invigorating, but also tragic, as when Panahi happens upon a friend he’d not seen since before his imprisonment and neither addresses this directly, their stiff, awkward pleasantries imparting their mutual regret. Near the end of the film, the director gives a ride to another acquaintance, and when she deduces that she’s being filmed, she gives him a reassuring speech, only to sadly warn him, “Erase what I said or you’ll be accused of sordid realism.”
As ever, Panahi also spotlights the act of filmmaking itself, even of the ostensibly apolitical kind, to be an act of resistance as well as a possible source of propaganda and manipulation. Much of the film’s last act involves Panahi’s young niece, who must make a film for a class while adhering to a list of acceptable rules. The director homes in on the absurd specificity of some of these absolutes—including, bewilderingly, a maxim that heroes must not have ordinary Muslim names, but the names of prophets and saints—and he implicitly comes to the conclusion that, in a way, he enjoys more freedom than many of his unharassed peers.
Then, Panahi takes his critique a step further when he leaves his niece in the car and the perspective shifts to the footage she takes of a street urchin. When she spots the boy take a coin off the ground and demand he return it so she can film something acceptable to screen for her class, her need to follow the rules passed down by the authorities reshapes the messier reality they willfully seek to suppress. It’s a brazen point that Panahi makes to also implicate his own manipulation of the real in search of his own truth.
Much is made of Panahi’s unfamiliarity of Tehran’s streets by the more impatient passengers, a running joke that becomes a metaphorical auto-critique of the director’s inability to see all, despite offering audiences (especially Western ones) a glimpse into an Iran they rarely get to see. But even as circumstance forces Panahi to turn his lens inward, he continues to depict an increasingly expansive vision, one equally haunted and puckish. Far from being broken by his ordeal, Panahi is making the strongest films of his career, and Taxi may be the strongest yet.