Jafar Panahi's masterful "Taxi" sets a high bar for this year's Berlin International Film Festival competition lineup. Simultaneously serving as director and star, Panahi poses as a cab driver navigating the streets of Tehran while tiny digital cameras record his seemingly spontaneous interactions with a series of passengers. In his third feature since his 2010 arrest and filmmaking ban in Iran, this longtime alchemist of reality and fiction appears in full command of an exciting new mode of filmmaking devised in answer to the stifling constraints on his creativity.
With image-making mobile devices playing as featured a role as the people holding them, the film provides a vivid tour through the multiple uses of video in today's society, with themes of ethics, criminality and social control rippling through the proceedings.
Since Panahi's detention for supporting the Iranian pro-democracy movements, this leading figure of the Iranian New Wave has struggled to sustain his filmmaking, finding ways to work around a state ban from making films with official approval. His first post-detention effort, 2011's "This Is Not a Film," was a revelatory, soul-searching attempt to realize a feature film project while under house arrest. His 2013 follow-up, "Closed Curtain," addressed the same self-reflexive questions in a slightly more conventional arthouse film mode, while still confined to private quarters.
With "Taxi," Panahi returns for the first time in nearly a decade to the streets of Teheran, where he established his reputation as a skillful practitioner of street realism ("The White Balloon"; "The Circle"; "Crimson Gold").
To evade unwanted attention while filming in public, Panahi cleverly sets the film entirely within the confines of a yellow cab. This automotive strategy, borrowed from fellow Iranian New Waver Abbas Kiarostami's "10," creates a semi-private space for his dramas to unfold while allowing the sights, sounds and occasional interventions of the street to filter in. He poses as the cabbie to invite people into his mobile movie set and tell him where to go: in a sense, they are as much the directors of the film as he.
However, it's never entirely clear whether the passengers are really spontaneous participants or rehearsed performers. An initial tour de force shot lasting nearly 10 minutes involves an outspoken man arguing with another passenger; while their body language appears natural and untrained, the force and rhythm of their spat feels almost too dramatically good to be true. When another passenger alights the cab, he recognizes Panahi and asks if he is filming a movie. The film creates an instant brain buzz for the viewer in figuring out what's staged and what's natural.
As passengers hop on and off this ever-moving narrative on wheels, a structure gradually emerges in roughly eight discernible chapters involving different sets of riders. Each one presents a different take on the role of video in Iranian society, and the legal, cultural and economic factors that play into their use. When Panahi picks up a roadside accident victim and rushes him to the hospital, the victim begs to borrow an iPhone in order to record his will bequeathing everything to his wife, defying Islamic inheritance laws that discourage female beneficiaries.
Panahi marvelously bends the scene through a rollercoaster of tonal changes: what starts out as a tense life-or-death action movie moment collapses into comedy with the victim's over-the-top histrionics. But as they near the hospital, he recedes into an unsettling silence, bringing a grim sense of mortality back to the situation.
Moment by moment, the viewer is in a constant state of negotiation with what they are to believe as real. This aligns perfectly with Panahi's position as a cinematic taxi driver navigating his way through the film, both spatially and dramatically. Panahi's perilous position as a director who's branded (in both positive and negative senses of the word) comes through in one extended sequence where he escorts his regular supplier of pirated DVDs to another client. The seller uses Panahi's presence to excite the client to buy more DVDs at Panahi's personal recommendations, much to the director's chagrin. The seller then suggests that Panahi could make a decent living as his partner since Panahi can no longer make a living from making movies.
These themes of filmmaking and exploitation return when Panahi's scene-stealing niece, an aspiring auteur herself, films street footage for a school assignment and catches a street tramp stealing money from a bridal party. Since films with criminal activity are illegal in Iran, she directs the tramp to return the money while she films him, thus turning the crime footage into a socially affirmative message movie.
These are just a couple instances in a film bursting with vivid examples of the role that video plays in mediating our lives and social interactions. There's surveillance camera footage of a robbery played on an iPad; a wedding video shot on HD; and armfuls of pirated DVDs. All of these in some way connect to the properties that images have in governing how we view what's official, authentic and legal versus what's illicit, false or downright criminal.
These matters certainly weigh heavily on a director for whom filmmaking has become a crime in his own country. But they resonate strongly with how all of us relate to the images we take for granted and their role in defining what's real, acceptable and valuable to us. These reasons alone make it an essential film of the year, if not the decade. That it's a thoroughly exciting, entertaining and ingenious work of cinema elevates it to the company of all-time greats.
"Taxi" premiered this week at the Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.