A brief recap before heading straight into the heart of the matter: Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi is forbidden from traveling outside Iran and has been banned from directing for 20 years. Yet Taxi is his third feature film done under this ban, and it may well be his finest work ever, let alone one of the best films of this or any year: a stunningly composed masterpiece where the popular and the arthouse, the accessible and the abstract party together like they were made for each other.
From the very beginning of this deceptively short film, the Iranian director harnesses his obvious limitations in his favour - shooting with one consumer camera in the cramped space of a sedan car, making it part of the film as openly as he himself is. Mr. Panahi is clearly building on Abbas Kiarostami's similarly presented 10 but takes it further into the areas of contemporary cinéma du réel, that shadow area where you can't quite make out what is real and what is invented; not that you would want to, as part of the big fun in Taxi is to keep you guessing. And, after all, what is a filmmaker who can't make films to do?
That was the dilemma at the heart of the director's previous two "underground" movies, This Is Not a Film and Closed Curtain. But those works seemed to draw their strength from the entropy of anguish and (self-)doubt - especially the claustrophobic, despairing Closed Curtain, a dark night of the soul if ever there was one. Here, Mr. Panahi comes literally out into the light and into the streets of modern-day Tehran, as he poses as a taxi driver - if a particularly clueless one - who picks up passengers during the course of a day.
Taxi is structured as a sort of relay sketch comedy where each of the rides leads directly into the next, highlighting an in-depth, "realist" look at contemporary Iranian society and the way people interact in "real life", hosted by a director once again open to the world and to the bustle surrounding him. But are these really "passengers" picked up at random, or is it all a huge game of make-believe set in and around the Iranian capital?
This is where Mr. Panahi weaves in a lot of the theoretical constructs he has been exploring throughout his career and especially in the previous "underground" films. This is a film made outside the official rules of Islamic-approved filmmaking, and yet breathes the open air and the visible reality of life, allowing space and room for chance to intrude upon them, unlike the rigidity of the the framework the regime wants to impose. It's particularly well explored in the hilarious episode with the director's scene-stealing tween niece, a diva in the making whose desire to make an "acceptable" film to enter in her school competition is constantly bumping into the intractability of real life: when a young boy her age, in evident dire straits, picks up a billfold dropped by a bridegroom in the middle of the street and pockets it, she wants desperately for him to return the money to its rightful owner for the sake of her mini-epic, wanting "reality" to bow itself to the rules she wants to impose on it.
It's a centrepiece moment that veers from laugh-out-loud funny to poignancy in a heartbeat, both a demonstration of Mr. Panahi's remarkable control over filmmaking and of the dilemma at the heart of every director that wishes to engage with the world around him. In it, the director articulates not only his filmmaking credo but also that of so many of the artists that have put Iranian cinema on the map over the years, while proving that he remains the most engaged yet mischievous of them all. You wouldn't have necessarily expected it from his earlier, more earnest films, but he has turned over the years into one of the most vital filmmakers at work in the world today. And if the abstract darkness of Closed Curtain suggested a director lost in the pits of his own despair, Mr. Panahi has rebounded from there into this celebratory, profoundly humanist work, a film that is as thoughtful and moving as it is raucously, riotously entertaining.
A film by Jafar Panahi. No cast or crew are credited due to the film's underground production.
Screened June 25th 2015, Ideal, Lisbon, distributor advance screening.