Nothing is smuggled out in a cake this time, but life doesn’t get any easier for Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi. His 20-year state imposed ban on involvement in any element of film production remains in place, and still he soldiers on. With some success too, Taxi Tehran claiming the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival last year (also banned from leaving the country, his niece, who appears in the film, picked up the award on his behalf). Returning to the docufiction style of Closed Curtain (2013), Panahi becomes a cabbie, gathering a series of candid, humorous and subversive stories from his fares along the way.
Given his current status, extreme limitations apply to his work. Big set-ups aren’t possible, but Panahi turns these restrictions into a virtue. Armed with only a cab and a camera, he constructs a series of interactions that bleed into each other, drawing out acute criticism of Iranian state-controlled society wrapped up with a slyly amusing pay-off.
Panahi himself is an interesting figure on screen. He’s a mixture of kindly uncle and sharp inquisitor as he prods and probes the people stepping into his taxi. There are criminals and state employees, men, women and the spiritually inclined. He picks up relatives and film lovers, those in trouble and those looking for it. All the while he remains somewhere between interested and amused, happy to provide advice on the best new films to watch to a student, unhappy when his name is invoked for commercial gain.This unruffled demeanour, and willingness to keep filming seems callous at times, particularly with a seriously injured man in the back, until it becomes gradually clear that all might not be as it seems. One passenger recognises him underneath the flat cap, and suspects he might have stumbled into Panahi’s new film. But even this might be a set-up, the line between fact and fiction constantly blurred.
At times, the rambling style comes together a little too neatly revealing the artifice behind the art. Backseat anecdotes are very convenient, right from the start when an argument ends with a punchline too smoothly crafted. The sheer breadth of conversation, taking in the subversive distribution of art, a school project that bans the exploration of anything that might paint Iran in a bad light, state violence and state punishment, and an unholy belief in the sanctified powers of fish is surprisingly broad for one day of taxiing. Except Panahi pulls it back in, threading together his critiques until he ends with a final bang.
Along the way, he does a fantastic job of capturing the feel of Tehran. The click-click of indicators and gentle rumble of the engine tick along in the background as his vehicle moves through crowded streets, busy intersections and sleepy residential blocks. People ask for directions, cars stop suddenly in the street, and everyone has somewhere to be. Comedy is sprinkled on top to lubricate the wheels further, Panahi rowing with his niece and almost killing a fish with injudicious braking.
Given he never seems to know where he’s going, Panahi is unlikely to pass The Knowledge anytime soon, which is a good thing because he belongs out there with his camera, capturing the world with quiet thoroughness. It’s special enough he’s still working despite the difficulties stacking up. That from these creative shackles he’s producing work as good as Taxi Tehran is a minor miracle.