Of the countries most well-known for foreign films in America, Iran likely does not rank particularly high on the list. In the sixty years the Oscars have been awarding for foreign language films, Iran has one received two nominations and one win (for 2011’s masterpiece from Asghar Farhadi A Separation). Granted, the Academy’s rules for foreign language films are notoriously dubious, and have certainly underrepresented in increasingly vibrant Iranian film industry that has been building over the past few decades. Spearheaded by auteurs like Abbas Kairostami (Close-Up, Taste of Cherry), Farhadi (The Past as well as the aforementioned A Separation) and newcomers like Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), the culture remains alive and well, even if their cultural penetration in America is limited at best. Perhaps most intriguing of them is Jafar Panahi, who broke onto the scene in 1995 with the award-winning The White Balloon and infamously was banned from making films in the country after a 2010 arrest for propaganda against the state. Since then, Panahi has found creative ways to continue releasing films from under the watchful thumb of his oppressors, even so far as smuggling a flash drive out of the country in a birthday cake. His newest film, Jafar Panahi’s Taxi continues that trend, masking his filmmaking process within the mundane act of driving a taxi in Tehran.
Panahi drives his taxicab around Tehran, picking up passengers from time to time and conversing with them on a wide variety of subjects. It becomes clear pretty soon, though, that the conceit of Panahi simply having turned his dash camera and gone about his day might not necessarily be what it seems. From the first conversation, an animated exchange about capital punishment between two strangers, a female teacher and a man who refers to himself as a “professional mugger,” these riders are suspiciously eloquent and on point about their arguments. Considering that this is the man who made This is not a Film (as well as the country that brought us Kairostami’s Close-Up, itself a film that reveled in playing with the intersection of truth and fiction), the man who is currently banned from making films in Iran (despite this being his third film since the ban was put in place), truth is more of a fluid concept. And by the time Panahi picks up his niece from school and takes her around the city as she shoots a student film and makes scathing comments about censorship within the Iranian film industry, his intentions are clear.
Panahi is a gregarious on-screen presence, smiling serenely as the events in his taxi take a turn for the wacky (by the twelfth minute of the film, he finds himself rushing to the hospital while a dying biker records his Last Will and Testament on Panahi’s phone from the backseat) and as his travelers berate him for being a terrible cab driver who doesn’t know how to get to their destinations. This first half plays out like a sort of madcap Manakamana, a series of vignettes that provide those little slices of life, though with a notably distinct twist of the absurd. Trips bleed together (apparently sharing cabs, including picking up new passengers in the middle of a trip, is culturally the norm in Iran) until he abandons a pair of irritable elderly women to go pick up his niece, signalling a tonal shift for the final forty minutes.
As the tone of Jafar Panahi’s Taxi shifts from an experiential look at modern day Tehran (heightened though it may be) to a direct condemnation of the Iranian ruling class and their treatment of art, some of its magic begins to dissipate. His niece struggles to shoot a short film for school while remaining within the guidelines of Iran’s film council, and while she is undeniably precocious and adorable, the extent to which she is clearly a sounding board for Panahi’s thoughts and opinions does flirt with becoming tiresome. Granted, if there is anyone on this Earth more justified to express his opinions of Iran’s film council than Panahi, it would be a surprise, but it is the lack of subtlety with which he broaches the subject that feels a bit inelegant. This film was never truly a recording of actual events, and there is something effective about the slow stripping away of the peripheral until the film magnifies its true themes. Yet this approach also requires him to sacrifice some of the momentum that is built during the first half in order to hammer home his point. While this lag is noticeable, it is by no means crippling. Even when at its most direct, Jafar Panahi’s Taxi still has charm by the boatload, brimming with deep reservoirs of humanity.