Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Movie Review: Taxi

Directed by: Jafar Panahi.
Written by: Jafar Panahi.

Iranian director Jafar Panahi isn’t supposed to be making movies – but he continues to anyway. In 2010, he was banned from making films because he angered the government – he was also sentenced to a jail sentence, and banned from leaving the country. Since then, Panahi has made three movies – This is Not a Film, shot with an iPhone in Panahi’s apartment, with a co-director, who doesn’t let Panahi call cut on a shot at one moment, because that would violate the ban, so he lets the shot go a little bit longer. That film was rather playful, while remaining sad – Panahi a prisoner in his own apartment, with nothing to do and nowhere to go – until the final shot that is. His follow-up was Closed Curtain – and again, it was shot by Panahi in his home (not the apartment this time, but a house in the middle of nowhere, where he hopes he can hide his dog) that he was supposed to get euthanized – when two strangers appear, also on the run, and he lets them in. That film, oddly, felt more claustrophobic than This is Not a Film – and also slightly more dour (of the three, it’s also clearly the one that is most like a film). Now he’s back with Taxi – and so is the playfulness. Is he violating the ban on filmmaking with Taxi – in which he does nothing other than drive a cab through the streets of Tehran, picking up various passengers, and talking to them? The camera is mounted on the dashboard – not that uncommon of a thing really – but there are other cameras in the film as well (everyone seems to have them).

The film is clearly not a documentary – but I suppose you’d have trouble actually proving that, as it appears that everyone in the movie (including Panahi himself) is playing a version of himself. The film however is much to “perfect” to simply have been captured on the fly. The film is filled with references to Panahi’s previous films – from Crimson Gold to The Circle to The Mirror to Offside – and Panahi makes no effort to try to disguise this fact (in fact, he has the various people directly reference how similar the events are to Panahi’s films by name). This isn’t so much Panahi bragging, as much as it is him playfully pointing things out, and highlighting the fact that issues addressed in those films are still very much evident in today’s Iran. If Panahi were allowed to make films, he could make them about what he always has.

The passenger who stays in Panahi’s cab the longest – approximately half of the 82 minutes movie – is his niece Hana, a tween who has been given an assignment from school to make a short film. Her teacher has also given her a set of rules that she has to abide by to make a “screenable” film. It’s amusing to watch Hana tell Panahi – an expert on these things – about all the restrictions on what she can and cannot show – and it’s even more amusing to see Hana get mad at a boy who does something in her shot that will make her film not “screenable”. Hana is full of life, and a chatterbox, which contrasts with Panahi’s quiet, often bemused demeanor throughout.

I’m not sure Taxi really adds up to that much. It is the most enjoyable of the three films that Panahi has made since being banned from making films – but it’s also the shallowest. It is basically Panahi playing around with the form – and the definition of what is and isn’t a film, and what is and isn’t real – which he plays with right to memorable final shot (something all three of these films share are killer final shots). But another thing that all three of these films share is a sense of sadness that this is the best Panahi can do right now – because he isn’t allowed to do anything else. It’s still fascinating to watch Panahi work – to play with the form – but the one thing I want is I think what he wants as well – the ability for Panahi to make a film the way he used to. That may never happen, but we can continue to hope it will.

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