Thursday, November 5, 2015

'Taxi' drives into the heart of Iran

A simple, but revealing film about a society under stress.

Iranian director Jafar Panahi has been barred from making films for 20 years. His crime: Making movies that angered the Iranian regime. As an artist with a flare for ingenuity, Panahi has resorted to all manner of invention to keep his camera rolling.

The documentary This is Not a Film (2010) dealt with the time in which Panahi was under house arrest. He was in the process of appealing a six-year prison sentence that accompanied his ban on filmmaking. Part of that film involved Panahi describing a film he planned to make.

This is Not a Film was followed by Closed Curtain (2014), which focused on a screenwriter in hiding.

Now comes the entertaining and illuminating Jafar Panahi's Taxi, a movie in which the director drives a cab around Teheran.

A more or less mundane premise allows Panahi simultaneously to explore the limitations that have been imposed on him and the deep contradictions that tear at the fabric of Iranian society.

Using a camera attached to the cab's dashboard, Panahi introduces us to non-actors who play out various scenarios, including one in which a hustler sells bootlegged copies of American blockbusters.

The movie opens with a satirical scene in which a passenger argues for the death penalty. Another passenger suggests that perhaps the death-penalty advocate is being needlessly harsh. The death penalty advocate sticks to his guns.

Two older women get into the cab carrying a gold fish bowl and explaining why it is essential for them to return the fish to the spring where they were found.

The film is stolen by a youngster who Panahi tells us is his niece. He picks the girl up after school, and she proceeds to kick the film into a higher gear.

Self-assured and confident, the girl says her teacher has instructed the class in how to make a "distributable" film; i.e., one that will make it past Iran's censorious regime. A film must be real, but not so real as to indulge in "sordid realism," we learn.

Taxi also opens its doors to Nasrin Sotoudeh, one of Iran's major human-rights lawyers. Sotoudeh has been in prison, so it's particularly convincing to hear her discussing interrogations with Panahi, who also knows something about the subject.

It's probably of metaphoric significance that Panahi -- best known for his 1995 masterpiece The White Balloon -- sometimes gets lost.

The tone of the film is relaxed and the filmmaking, of necessity, is modest.

But this deceptively simple film reveals much about the current state of Iran, about the plight of artists who are suppressed and about the way one such artist courageously retains his humanity, still allowing himself to be amused by his fellow citizens.

Taxi ought to shame every petulant director who makes a point of insisting on more luxury or more money. For Panahi, a film is not only an important act of expression: It's a necessary act of courage.

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