Abitter irony: If creativity thrives on restrictions, then this could be considered the most creative period of Jafar Panahi’s career.
The much-loved Iranian director (“Crimson Gold,” “The White Balloon”) is roughly five years into a 20-year ban on filmmaking handed down by the Iranian Revolutionary Court in reaction to Panahi’s activities during the Green Movement of 2010. During his house arrest in 2011, he made “This Is Not a Film” and had it smuggled into the Cannes Film Festival on a flash drive hidden in a cake. In 2013, Panahi co-directed “Closed Curtain” with Kambuzia Partovi. Now comes “Jafar Panahi’s Taxi,” which at least gets him out of the house.
He has gotten away with it (so far) because these films do not appear to be “directed” as such. They’re found-footage dramas, or they appear to be, in which Panahi (or someone) turns on a digital camera and things just sort of happen. That such things can comment obliquely but pointedly on life in a theocracy, on the hypocrisies of a repressive state and the daily subterfuges necessary to live in one, on the futility of Sharia law and the unequal treatment of women — well, that’s just a coincidence, isn’t it?
As the title says, Panahi is driving a taxi in his latest not-a-film. He simply cruises around Tehran and picks up passengers who involve him in their dilemmas, bicker with each other, bemoan or boast about their lives. Occasionally he’s recognized; the man does have fans. Whatever else you can say about Panahi, he’s not much of a taxi driver, since he has to keep asking directions from other drivers.
But he’s a deceptively mellow sort, smiling graciously under his cabbie cap and responding politely even when the going gets weird. At one point, Panahi ferries a man who’s just been hit by a bicycle to the hospital, lending him his cellphone so the panicky victim can record a will and make sure his wife gets the house. At another point, two passengers get into an argument about whether thieves should be hanged or understood as motivated by poverty; the man holding out for capital punishment turns out to be a professional mugger.
We glean information and insight into life in modern Iran. Western culture is forbidden by the mullahs but there’s a thriving black market for Hollywood DVDs and CDs. An eccentric little movie pirate uses Panahi’s taxi as a front office for a spell, selling season five of “The Walking Dead” to a young man who turns out to be a film student and who hits up the great director for advice on choosing a subject. Panahi shrugs and says you’ll know it when you see it — this from a man who is creating a wry moral drama using only a dashboard camera.
Making films and creating art under a dictatorship is much on Panahi’s mind. About halfway through “Taxi,” he picks up his niece, Hana, a 10-year-old fireball whose teacher has assigned the class to make their own short films. There are rules: respect the headscarf, avoid sordid realism, name the characters after Islamic saints, and so forth. “What exactly is sordid realism?” the girl wonders, noting that the teacher has instructed the students to capture what’s real but nothing that’s real-real.
“Jafar Panahi’s Taxi” has the rough-hewn feel of a documentary, but of course it’s scripted, with a sly joke about Tehran’s petty-crime wave that gives the game away at the very end. As usual, the director avails himself of gifted non-professional actors. They are brave to appear in this movie and they remain mostly unknown. A title card at the end reads, “Despite my heartfelt wishes, this film has no credits.”
Those who’ve followed Panahi’s career over the decades will catch echoes of and references to his earlier movies, and at times “Taxi” is as much a tour of his filmography as it is of Tehran. Fans may also recognize a deep, abiding humanism that keeps weariness and rage in check. One of the most touching figures to catch a ride in the taxi is a human rights lawyer of Panahi’s acquaintance. She’s bringing roses and hope to a young woman on hunger strike in jail, and, before she exits, she leaves a rose on the dashboard, “for the people of cinema, because the people of cinema can be relied on.” That includes the world film community that has rallied around Panahi during his travails. And it includes you, if you’d like.
★ ★ ★ ½
JAFAR PANAHI’S TAXI
Written and directed by Jafar Panahi. At Kendall Square. 82 minutes. Unrated (as PG: one expletive, mild violence). In Farsi, with subtitles.