By Ethan Sapienza
Jafar Panahi, a prominent Iranian director, has been arrested multiple times, is banned from any form of filmmaking and restricted from travelling outside his home country for twenty years, all because he exercised free speech. These punishments seem arbitrary and cruel, yet are just an indication of the suffering and oppression that occur in Iran. The tyranny is so prevalent that it’s commonplace, the type of material worthy of passing conversations held in a cab. This is the very premise of “Taxi,” Panahi’s new film that is so compelling and is done in such modest terms that it’s unfeasible to not be floored.
As the name would imply, the film takes place solely within the confines of a yellow taxicab piloted by Panahi himself, capturing his drive around Tehran via a few well-placed cameras. Many riders come and go, and they range from a simple schoolteacher to an amusing pair of old women insisting their annual ritual of swapping fish out of a river is integral to their survival. The premise is bare bones, and its style follows suit, consisting of long takes that very plainly study the conversations and faces of the subjects.
It’s unclear what went into the making of the film, but it’s played off so naturally and beautifully that I imagine its intricacies would give me heartburn. The flowing nature of passengers entering Panahi’s car, offering their thoughts on life in Iran and departing is crafted with meticulous precision and is wholly captivating.
Take an encounter with Panahi’s old neighbor, whom he meets out of some undisclosed necessity. He eventually reveals he’s been brutally mugged. What’s worse is he recognized one of the masked perpetrators, seeing his eyes while having his head smashed into a wall. Panahi, usually buoyant and observant, subtly displays his horror: his face grows long with somber frustration. He demands he report them, yet his friend refuses, as such crimes are cause for brutal executions. He implores Panahi to understand that this is how they survive. This, we are told, is life in Iran.
These exchanges only pile on: a bloodied man is placed in the cab, the cause of his injuries unknown. As Panahi takes him to the hospital along with his screaming wife, he fades into threatening unconsciousness. Resolute, he records his will so as to ensure his wife receives his belongings, otherwise the state will see to it that she gets nothing. Another involves Panahi’s young, feisty niece who as a performer is hilariously charming. She is working on a short film for school, yet as she reveals her teacher’s instructions, it becomes apparent the project is more akin to propaganda than self-expression.
The most captivating ride involves a woman who helps with the imprisoned and recently released. She offers wisdom: when freed, one finds the outside is jail, that friends are now enemies and prayers turn to asking for re-imprisonment. Panahi agrees and smiles, knowing he’s turned his prison into a scathing microscope, its findings impossible to escape.
Taxi is currently playing in select theaters.
Ethan Sapienza is a Highlighter Staff Columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org