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Jafar Panahi’s Taxi

Jafar Panahi, Taxi, 2015, digital video, color, sound, 82 minutes. Jafar Panahi.

IN HIS TRILOGY of immurement—This Is Not a Film (2011), Closed Curtain (2013), and now Taxi—Iranian director Jafar Panahi, banned from making films and placed under house arrest (until very recently, we surmise), has evaded government embargo by surreptitiously shooting movies in, respectively, his apartment, his beachfront home on the Caspian Sea, and a cab traversing the streets of Tehran, transforming his own physical and artistic detention into a metaphor for his country’s psychic imprisonment. (The persecuted Turkish auteur Yilmaz Güney similarly turned his ordeal of incarceration into national allegory, but in a far more drastic manner.) That the director of such teeming, expansive works as The Circle (2000) and Offside (2006) should find himself limited to the confines of a car may seem lamentable, but Taxi has illustrious cab-bound ancestors, most obviously Ten (2002) by Panahi’s mentor, Abbas Kiarostami, as well as Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth (1991). And with the intrepid Panahi in the driver’s seat as both novice cabbie and veteran filmmaker, spatial restrictions predictably provide ample opportunity for formal innovation.

Framed by two long takes shot out of the cab’s windshield by a camera affixed to the dashboard, an apparatus one passenger mistakes for an “antitheft device” early on so that the film can symmetrically end with the camera’s being stolen, Taxi has struck some critics as serene and freewheeling, but it turns out to be much the opposite. As the engineered irony of that finale suggests, Taxi is highly designed, and though Panahi smiles benevolently throughout, even as his passengers pelt him with insults—his little niece calls him “a hopeless case”—the film’s cumulative portrait of Iran is as dire as anything in his previous cinema. “You planned it all and thought I wouldn’t guess,” Panahi’s most persistent fare, a sweaty, corpulent DVD vendor called Omid, joshes after he recognizes the cabdriver and realizes that the conversation between the two previous occupants—a maybe mugger and a schoolteacher, who debate capital punishment in Iran—was scripted and performed rather than real or improvised. Just as Panahi poses as a cabbie, Taxi masquerades as actuality, which should surprise no one familiar with the venerable tradition of Iranian meta-cinema, whose apogee, Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990), greatly informed his acolyte’s work (particularly 1997’s The Mirror). The disclosure that documentary has been rigged or staged has long lost its novelty, so Taxi runs the risk of aesthetic exhaustion by reviving the Persian meta mode, never more so than when Panahi’s Frappuccino-adoring niece Hana recites her film teacher’s rules for making a movie distributable in Iran, every one of which Taxi merrily contravenes. In the end, Panahi’s intention to portray the state of his country by way of an itinerant fresco proves overly deliberate and not a little devious. When Panahi’s last traveler, a dauntless human rights lawyer known only as “the flower lady,” bestows a rose on “the people of cinema because they can be relied on,” her compliment rings sweetly naive.

Like most of Panahi’s films, Taxi transpires in apparent real time, which makes disguising its frequent feints more difficult. For example, Omid’s sudden appearance in the cab around the nine-minute mark—at which point Panahi is revealed as the driver—appears conspicuously unfeasible, unless he has been lurking silent and unseen behind the driver from the film’s outset. This cheat may seem trifling or perhaps even appropriate to a work whose cardinal themes include imposture and piracy (every third person seems to be a fraud, thief, or bootlegger) and that renders much elusive or unreliable: The sparing santir music cannot be identified as diegetic or non-; the blood splattered on the backseat by a wounded passenger unaccountably disappears; some fares’ claims about their lives prove dishonest or fanciful. If This Is Not a Film circumvented the government’s proscription against Panahi’s shooting a movie by depending solely on the cameras of others, Taxi’s cinematography feigns exclusive reliance on visible sources—that dashboard device, smartphones and tablets, the niece’s Canon—but several shots could have been captured only by an offscreen camera (wielded by the director, one assumes).

“It’s not good to be too carefree,” one passenger insists, as if to excuse Panahi’s overdetermined approach. Fashioned as a double compendium, of Iran’s ills and of the highlights of the director’s career, Taxi schematically conceives each sequence either to broach a social or political problem—a histrionic episode in which Panahi, who established his feminist credentials in The Circle, ferries a severely injured man and his shrieking wife to the hospital illustrates women’s inability to inherit property in Iran—or to invoke one of the director’s previous works. In This Is Not a Film and Closed Curtain, Panahi’s confinement also precipitated a contemplation of his vocation, but in the ambulatory summa that is Taxi, his auto-homages—both direct (to Offside, The Mirror, and Crimson Gold [2003]) and oblique—feel imposed and peremptory: An irritating sequence in which two querulous women transport a pair of goldfish to Ali’s Spring seems inserted for no other purpose than to summon his first feature, The White Balloon (1995). (One wonders whether the women’s destination, where rugs were traditionally washed, indirectly alludes to Panahi’s short “Untying the Knot” in the 2007 omnibus film Persian Carpet.) Similarly, two implausible late incidents, in which a man traumatized by a violent robbery purposely visits a coffee shop to be served by his assailant, and an unconvincing street urchin attempts to rescind a theft, exist mostly as rejoinders to an earlier discussion of crime and punishment in Iran. Panahi’s defiance remains admirably adamant, even as his Taxi heads toward impasse.

Taxi, which won the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, opens Oct. 2 in New York, Oct. 9 in Los Angeles, and on Oct. 16 in theaters nationwide.

James Quandt is senior programmer at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.