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Film Review


Despite a long tradition of great films from Iran, it is not easy to be a filmmaker there today. Celebrated film makers like Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi and others have been threatened and harassed by the Islamic government. Panahi was arrested in 2010 along with his wife, daughter and 15 friends. They were released but Panahi was banned for 20 years from making any films or giving any interviews with foreign media. While appealing his 6 year sentence, he made This is Not a Film (2011) which was essentially a video diary made from his cell phone. It was shot largely in his Tehran apartment. The film reached the West on a flash drive hidden in a cake, a commentary both funny and sad. Panahi was a student of Kiarostami and is best known for his White Balloon (1995). The screenplay was by his mentor, Kiarostami. White Balloon was submitted as Iran's choice for Best Foreign Film to the Oscars, but in a bizarre reversal, the Iranian government attempted to withdraw it. The Academy refused to allow its withdrawal but it did not win regardless of having won many foreign awards. It has become a classic. Panahi went on to make four more feature length films, including The Circle (2000), Crimson Gold (2006), and Offside (2006), several of which were banned before they were shown in Iran. He was then forbidden to make any further films. His films are characterized by stories about the poor and disadvantaged, which upset the government.

Panahi's latest film, Taxi, was made in defiance of the government ban, an especially courageous act given the likelihood of jail time. Here he outfits a yellow car with an interior camera that sometimes points straight ahead, sometimes toward the passengers, and sometimes toward the driver. The driver is Jafar Panahi himself, and we see him stop to pick up passengers in Tehran. The conceit is very clever in that he is only recording the passengers and their interactions with each other and himself, all while driving. He is not making a film. What we see is a record of a broad mix of Iranians, from one arrogant male passenger attempting to dominate the conversation with another passenger, a female teacher who it turns out can more than hold her own in an argument with the guy over politics. Clearly, people share cabs in Tehran. Passengers come and go, including two women desperate to go to a shrine to release gold fish that they had raised in order to bring them luck in the new year. This sequence is a wonderful segment and comes close to slapstick. Then Panafi is flagged down by another man who makes his living selling imported DVD's, and who recognizes Panafi because Panafi has gotten DVD's from him before. Up to this point the film is whimsical with fascinating looks at everyday life in Tehran. He picks up his niece, Hanna, a cute, precocious, self assured ten year old who loves banana splits. She has to make a film for a school assignment so turns to Panafi for advice. Again, this segment is wonderful and could stand alone, but takes a different turn when a friend sees him and they begin to talk about darker things.

There is so much charm, richness and closely observed humanity in Taxi yet at the same time is a commentary on a harsh, rigid paranoid government. You begin to wonder are his passengers and friends professional actors or simply people who hailed his cab? I think a mixture of both, but could not be sure. The editing is marvelous and the film takes place over a few short hours, almost in real time. Taxi gathers power and the ending is sudden and uncomfortable, but revelatory. I was very taken by this film and think that Panafi has made a gem of a film that will become a classic. I loved it and intend to see it again. Opened several weeks ago at the Kabuki, The Rafael, and the Shattuck, so not sure how much longer it will continue to play. Screening time: 84 minutes.

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