This is a film about film, a celebration of the magic and necessity of storytelling confirming the director’s inability to stop telling stories.
Recently revealed details have confirmed the fact that, while Jafar Panahi’s punishment by the Iranian government remains appalling and completely unjust, it may also be not quite as restrictive as initially imagined. As the freewheeling transit adventures of Taxi demonstrate, he’s not actually under house arrest. The postscript to 2012’s This Is Not A Film, which claimed that the illegal movie had been snuck out of the country in a flash drive hidden inside of a cake, has now been confirmed as a joke. Yet rather than diminish the ongoing drama of the director’s incarceration, these small fantastical touches have further enlivened it, deepening the interplay between reality and illusion and helping to turn a period in which he’s technically been banned from filmmaking into what may be his most fertile creative era.
All the usual tricks, themes and deceptions are present in Taxi, which plunks the director, now firmly established as his own new leading man, into the unlikely role of a beatifically cheerful taxi driver. He’s still playing himself, and there’s no explanation as to why he’s taken up this new job, but Panahi rolls through the streets of Tehran nonetheless, picking up passengers and gliding through one kerfuffle after another. Through all this, a dashboard-mounted camera chronicles the action in an apparent nod to current exile and former collaborator Abbas Kiarostami, whose similarly deception-focused fables often play out in front seats of moving vehicles.
Abandoning the diaristic trappings of his two previous films, Taxi maintains Panahi’s current fixation on spatial and thematic limitations. Perspective is limited in the small car, and the camera never leaves, remaining rooted inside even when the action spreads outward. Attention is also repeatedly drawn to the fact that only one camera is being used; there’s no footage inside when the camera is pointed forward out the window, and vice versa. Panahi cheats a few times, employing brief shot/reverse shot patterns to lessen the constriction, but he still seems committed to producing full-fledged narrative movies, plotless but packed with incident, using only the most basic of documentary techniques. Rather than being used as a Brechtian wedge – laying bare formal restrictions to diminish emotional connection and encourage contemplation – the revelation of technical seams here serves to further humanize and explain the directors situation, highlighting the restrictiveness of his circumstances and castigating the government without ever raising a word of protest.
This lack of overt criticism seems important, considering the repeated mentions of the country’s stringent film codes, specifically the proscription against “sordid realism.” Nothing about Taxi could be described as sordid, and none of the rules mentioned are directly broken, but much attention is paid to how reality fails to jibe with these restrictions. The majority of these checks are enforced by Panahi’s spirited niece, who’s producing her own short film for a school project and is adamant that things stay above board. This means tension over the fact that Panahi’s friend is wearing a tie (good guys are not supposed to appear in Western garb, or carry non-religious names) and the bullying of a poor child into returning money, picked up off the ground, to the wealthy couple who dropped it. Allowing him to keep the currency might be interpreted as an encouragement of larceny, not to mention political commentary.
Like Panahi’s two other post-arrest works, this is a film about film, a celebration of the magic and necessity of storytelling, with the helpless passage of documentary footage into a fictional framework confirming the director’s inability to stop telling stories. As with his earlier films, which were social realist dramas that often tested the borders between fact and fiction, these recent movies possess the ability to change forms at any moment, remaining insistently slippery and hard to define. Constantly referential, completely enclosed, but still embracing new possibilities and ideas at every turn, Taxi spins another brilliant premise, and another consistently surprising film, out of the harsh strictures of personal and political confinement.