Taxi is the third feature that Jafar Panahi has made in semisecrecy since the Iranian government banned him from directing in 2010. That context is crucial to the movie, in which Panahi, playing a fictionalized version of himself, works as a cabdriver in Tehran to make ends meet. References to his situation resonate throughout Taxi: one passenger lectures Panahi on the censorship rules in Iran, and another calls to mind the person who interrogated him when he first got in trouble with the government. Yet the film is not just about the director’s misfortune; conversations overheard in Panahi’s cab make contemporary Iran seem bad for everyone. One passenger frets that the law will give her inheritance over to her brothers-in-law despite her husband’s wishes, while another, an activist lawyer, has been disbarred because of her political views. Widespread poverty is a frequent topic of discussion.
At the same time, Taxi is lighter than This Is Not a Film or Closed Curtain, the two earlier movies Panahi directed after his ban. The film moves briskly, and there’s plenty of comic relief, including the running gag that he can’t escape filmmaking even as an ordinary workingman. Not only do passengers frequently talk to him about his films; some of them resemble characters he’s created. A pair of old women hoping to transport some goldfish across town recall the little girl in Panahi’s debut feature, The White Balloon (1995). Panahi’s headstrong, preadolescent niece, whom he drives home near the end of the movie, compares herself to the heroine of his second film, The Mirror (1997). One passenger, who distributes bootleg DVDs, asks Panahi whether he’s staging all the action that unfolds, an in-joke that undercuts the documentary-style realism.
Is Panahi’s life one big movie, or is filmmaking inescapable in contemporary life? The woman who’s worried about her inheritance asks Panahi whether he’ll record her husband with a camera phone so he can declare his last will and testament, and the niece talks about a short film she has to make for school with an inexpensive camera. These incidents raise the question of what makes Panahi special when technology permits anyone to become a filmmaker, though the answer lies in the very nature of Taxi. Panahi looks for new perspectives everywhere he goes—note how he engages all his passengers in serious conversation, as though preparing them for roles—and this search reflects his unwavering devotion to cinema, which has the power to transmit those perspectives to the world. v