‘Taxi’: Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Unexpectedly warm, teasing and eye-opening

Banned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi makes a movie about thieves, political oppression and himself pretending to be a taxi driver

Jafar Panahi continues his personal and artistic resistance struggle against the Iranian film authorities in the light-hearted but weighty- themed Taxi, bowing in competition at Berlin. An apparently simple film on the surface about a taxi driver (played by the director) and his oddball fares, it recaps the social themes of numerous other Iranian movies set in vehicles cruising the streets of Teheran (Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten, to name but one.) At the same time, Panahi continues to explore his own brand of self-reflexive cinema in which he is both the filmmaker, the film subject, and a fictional character. So there is something for everyone in Taxi, his most successful film since his arrest in 2010, though its subtleties will be lost outside art houses, Celluloid Dreams’ main target.

Like the haunting Persian music occasionally heard in the film that turns the mood melancholy and serious, the fluidly told episodes are variations on an Iranian theme that at first glance seems like an over-used vein with no gold left to mine. Amazingly, Panahi turns the utterly simple, economical format of a camera inside a car into something relevant to his own artistic state and full of eye-opening insights into Iranian society.

“Disguised” behind a beret and glasses, a self-conscious little smile on his face, his fake cabbie is funny just to observe. The atmosphere has lightened up since his anguishing This Is Not a Film co-directed with Mojtaba Mirtahmasb in 2011 and the 2013 Closed Curtain co-directed with Kambozia Partovi, which he made after being arrested and banned from filming for twenty years. Though apparently the director is no longer under house arrest, he is certainly still on the watch list, and the deliberate absence of technical and acting credits on these films shows they are still hot items as far as the government is concerned.

Again challenging the government’s decree that bars him from filmmaking, Panahi plunks himself in front of the camera as a would-be yellow cab driver whose candid camera improbably tapes himself and his passengers as they chat. The only character who notices the camera takes it for an anti-theft surveillance device. It peers out from the front seat on an ordinary Teheran street scene. Men in street clothes and women in long black veils dodge traffic as the cabbie picks up his first two fares, first a man and then a woman, going to different places. These strangers immediately get into a heated argument when the man opines that thieves who steal the tires off cheap cars should be hanged in public.  The woman, a teacher, speaks up with the forceful conviction of a liberal New Yorker, suggesting that thieves may steal out of hunger, and recalls the ineffectiveness of two recent public hangings in preventing crime.

Panahi mutes the social theme for his next rider, a comic figure who peddles unlicensed DVDs. Omid has quite a selection of foreign films on hand, from Korean art house to Hollywood blockbusters and Season 5 of The Walking Dead. He even boasts he can get hold of the rushes of films in the making. It’s hard to condemn him, though, because as he points out, this is the only way to see foreign films in Iran. He immediately sees through Panahi’s disguise as a cabbie, because he has sold him Woody Allen and Nuri Bilge Ceylan DVDs. His flourishing business would make The Pirate Bay green with envy, and sales soar when he tells a customer that the famous filmmaker is his partner. All this patter is quite entertaining for audiences in the know, but will probably seem pointless to non-filmies.

Omid is still on board when they come upon the scene of a motorcycle accident. The bloody husband is loaded into the back seat along with his wailing wife. As they race for the hospital, he insists on making out his last will and testament in her favor, because if he dies without a will, his brothers will inherit everything. Even this imminent tragedy is turned into comedy, however, when Omid films the man’s testament on Panahi’s cell phone.

Two less amusing passengers are elderly ladies in veils carrying a fishbowl. They’re completely self-absorbed in their mission to toss the goldfish into Ali’s Spring exactly at noon – their lives depend on it. This absurd bit of business is more puzzling than funny, however, and it’s a relief when they're politely kicked out of the car.

It’s a nice collection of characters, but the best is saved for last: the director’s know-it-all 10-year-old niece Hana, who is quite a piece of work. She’s a budding filmmaker and tapes everything in sight with her camera, including a grimy street boy digging through garbage bins. The urchin picks up 50 tomans (basically cab fare) dropped by a bridegroom, who (joke) is in turn being filmed for his wedding video. Hana prissily insists he give the money back, because he is ruining her film. Her teacher has explicitly told the kids to keep “sordid realism” out of their work.

Thus the long episode with Hana brings the story around to the director’s own woes with film censorship and its restrictions, which even a schoolgirl knows: women must wear head scarves and men must not wear ties (except the villains), positive characters must have Iranian names, there should be no mention of politics or economics and nothing resembling “sordid reality”. Life’s dark and unpleasant side at last appears in the story told to Panahi by a well-to-do childhood friend, who was traumatically mugged by a masked man and his wife. He recognized them as ordinary neighborhood people and didn’t turn them in, for fear they might be hanged.

A final memorable character is a smiling, red-haired woman on the street peddling roses. Panahi knows her well:  she’s a lawyer who has just been banned from working by the Bar Association. Presumably this is because she spends her time visiting political prisoners and their families. She is on her way to see a girl on a hunger strike, who was arrested for trying to attend a volleyball game – the very story of Panahi’s Offside, his most widely distributed film in Iran despite its being banned.  As the flower lady says, even when the government frees the people it arrests on trumped-up charges, they are marked men and women, and the outside world becomes a bigger cell for them.

Production companies: Jafar Panahi Film Production
Cast: Jafar Panahi
Director, Screenwriter, Producer: Jafar Panahi
(No credits divulged)
Sales: Celluloid Dreams

No rating, 82 minutes