Back in December 2010, Iran's rebel filmmaker Jafar Panahi was sentenced to 6 years in jail and banned from making movies for the foreseeable future. Since then, he has directed 3 films in secrecy to universal acclaim, the latest of them being "Taxi", my pick for Movie of the Week. In this Golden Bear winner from the 2015 Berlin Film Festival, Panahi once again proves that when you're a creative genius, sometimes the rules don't apply.
As resourceful as ever, Panahi took to the streets for "Taxi", posing as a cab driver to stage a series of documentary-like conversations with the various people who make up the city of Tehran. As he makes his way through the capital, he paints a clear portrait of Iranian society that is incisive and thoroughly engrossing. And he accomplishes all this with a simple camera on the dashboard and rarely ever leaving the confines of his car.
Indeed, within moments of the film's opening, the first thought that came to my mind was "how clever!" What initially feels like a documentary soon reveals itself to be an exercise in unorthodox narrative filmmaking. The first passengers are a man and woman who get into an argument over the disturbing practice of using of extreme measures (i.e. executions) in the punishment of small crimes. And as they trade their opinions back and forth, a clear picture of the nation's ideological divide (tradition vs modernity) comes into focus. Soon, Panahi proceeds to drop them off at their separate destinations and another passenger acknowledges that the scene was staged with actors.
This transparency in Panahi's approach turns out to be one of the film's greatest virtues. By crafting a structured narrative, he is able to openly express his own personal perspective without contradicting the sense of "realism". Though the various characters he encounters come from different walks of life, we are fully aware that they reflect his own voice.
The result is a film that acts as a subversive protest of the sociocultural conditions which lead to his present predicament. Panahi's screenplay covers a wide range of topics, challenging even anti-piracy sentiments by extolling the importance of such bootleg copies in fostering cinephilia among the populace. But "Taxi" is far removed from the agitprop tradition, conveying its message instead with delicate humor and wit. As you can even see from the poster, Panahi wears a smile throughout, which helps to make this such a pleasant, engaging watch.
"Taxi" features no camera tricks, no epic score, no flashy costumes or sets. It is pure, elemental cinema from a genius who is clearly at the top of his game. Indeed, having only seen this film from Panahi, I can already subscribe to the belief that his work is vital, enlightening and brilliant.