Defiance and Sordid Realism shine through Panahi’s 'Taxi'

By Ashish Valentine

Released in 2015, the entire film is set in a cab, which writer-director Panahi, playing a version of himself, drives throughout the streets of Tehran. The movie is shot through three cameras mounted throughout his cab and occasionally with a handheld camera. The characters, passengers Panahi picks up throughout his journey, are played by mostly unprofessional actors. They’re richly painted, even in brief, and many of Panahi’s interactions with them reveal an expressly political dimension, every conversation criticizing the regime he lives under in a different way.

Panahi’s experience with the government’s brutality isn’t abstract, either. As he plays himself in the film, the writer-director lives under a 20-year ban on making movies by the Iranian government. One of his previous movies, “This is not a film (2011),” had to be smuggled out of Iran to be shown at Cannes by hiding a flash drive and mailing it inside a cake.

Despite the drastic circumstances of Panahi’s struggle with censorship and surveillance, at first I found his critique of the regime to be too infantile. Some of the earlier scenes seemed too staged, too insistent in the Panahi-as-martyr message to allow the audience to believe they were real people and not stock characters. A scene with Panahi’s adorably haughty niece Hana, played by his real-life niece Hana Saeidi, begins with her telling him she has an assignment for her film class in school, then detailing all of the restrictions she faces: not filming “improper” relations between the sexes, not allowing the hero to dress in a Western fashion and staying away from “sordid realism.” It seemed too obvious a comment on the government’s actions against Panahi, and the message of his art seems lost in the banality of the allegory.

At one point, Hana tries to complete her assignment by filming a poor street boy returning money a wedding couple has dropped as they embark on their honeymoon. Hana bullies the boy, who works as a garbage collector, into returning the money on camera, but the couple urges him to keep it. Disappointed in the lack of a storybook ending, she puts her camera down, frustrated with a film too full of “sordid realism.” It’s an effective scene, even if the comparison seems unsubtle.

On my second viewing of “Taxi,” I realized the true nature of Panahi’s critique, the reason he chose to infantilize the government through the scenes with his niece, the reason that the conversations felt stilted and staged. The object of Panahi’s critique was the sheer banality and infantility of the regime, its childish insistence on plots with storybook endings, with chaste relations between the sexes, avoiding true, “sordid” depictions of life in Iran.

Through scenes like this, Panahi’s sheer anger seeps into the otherwise bemusing film. It’s visible in the scorn on a schoolteacher’s stare, the shaking of a cheap camera, the blood on a dying man’s face. The very nature of his taxicab-shot film is an act of resistance against the regime’s forbidding him from making movies: while Panahi shot “This Is Not a Film” secretly at his home, “Taxi” navigated the ban by coyly announcing itself in public: shot on the run, staying in no place for more than five minutes, but at the same time, it’s shot outside, in broad daylight, in conversation with the citizens of Tehran and the people that populate Panahi’s daily life.

One of the most disturbing references to this undertone of surveillance and pursuit is during Panahi’s conversation with a disbarred human rights lawyer. They both related experiences of being forbidden from their jobs and being interrogated by government agents while blindfolded. Panahi revealed after his interrogation he can’t help but constantly keep scanning behind his back, listening if someone he meets on the street or as a waiter in the cafe has the voice of his captor.

Irony and absurdity abound in equal measure when one passenger reveals himself to be a bootleg film dealer that supplies Panahi’s family. Another pair of old women demand to be rushed to a spring, revealing only after much consternation they are headed there simply to return two goldfish. Much of the comedy also results from how bad of a driver Panahi turns out to be; he’s frequently forced to refer his passengers to other cabbies when he doesn’t know directions and ends up giving half of his passengers free rides as apologies.

The comedy abruptly turns to drama, however, when a pounding of hands on his window reveals a seriously injured man, dictating his will to Panahi’s phone camera as his sobbing wife keeps him talking, and Panahi desperately tries to reach a hospital in time.

?Since “This Is Not a Film,” Panahi’s anger has clearly not dulled, only grown. A clear means of understanding this development is the recurring figure of the trash collector. In This is not a film, the boy picking up litter in Panahi’s neighborhood performs the film’s final act of resistance by lighting trash on fire in the street and jumping over it to celebrate the night before the Persian new year, in defiance of the president’s orders against any festivities. In Taxi, the trash collector boy remains silenced, discarded by Hana as an improper plot veers too close to realism. Through this silencing, Panahi’s rage at a government portrayed as oppressive, immature and banal all at once becomes beautifully, dangerously clear.

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