Saturday, October 3, 2015

One of the world's smartest, most talented provocateurs is back: Jafar Panahi's TAXI

In his home country of Iran, filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who has given us some of the best Iranian movies -- hell, best from anywhere movies -- has, for some time now, been banned from making them by his country's powers-that-be. Still, he soldiers on. His latest provocation, and perhaps his most charming/scathing/endearing endeavor is called TAXI, and in it, Mr. Panahi plays (or maybe is) a taxi driver in downtown Tehran.

Panahi (shown at left with what looks like maybe his Golden Bear award from this year's Berlin International Film Fest, where he also won the FIPRESCI Prize) usually uses a documentary style, and his films often look like they are indeed documentaries (especially his last one, This Is Not a Film). Hardly. They are planned and plotted as tightly as the best of mysteries, making use of everything from irony to subtlety to quiet drama and on-the-fly humor. Yet they appear to be near improvisation, spinning outward into greater meaning and importance as they cleverly unfurl.

The movie begins with a panorama of Tehran traffic. Hey, we're just driving around; what's wrong with that? We'll soon see, as Panafi's new movie adds another link to the chain of work from this talented, put-upon man. (Under house arrest for some time, he is still banned from filmmaking.) Slowly, the soundtrack offers some music (the first notes of which may put you in mind of I Love Paris) and then dialog begins, as the taxi driver picks up passengers, one of whom is a blowhard whose dialog about the need for capital punishment for thieves causes the other passenger, a woman, to argue heatedly against this idea.

By the time the man has left the taxi, the first of many ironies to come has made itself plain -- and surprising, even funny.When at last we are allowed to see Panafi -- who's driving that cab, the effect is terrific. What a face this guy has! He might have become an actor (well, he is one, here), his visage is such an effective tool. In fact, this movie ought to have rightly been called Taxi Driver -- had that title not already been commandeered.)

Panafi's next fare recognizes him -- it's an black-market video dealer (above, left) from some time back, who used to provide the filmmaker with banned movies he craved to see. The guy is still up to those same old tricks, and we learn something of Panafi's taste in film (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and Midnight in Paris). A wounded man and his wife must suddenly take over the cab -- and Panafi's cell phone -- for a video of the guy's last will and testament. Later two middle-aged ladies carrying fish in a glass bowl (below) plead for and receive a ride -- until the needs of the filmmaker's own niece (in the penultimate photo) supersede.

These little vignettes and those that follow -- all staged brilliantly to effect a reality that stings -- take in everything from politics to economics, crime, culture, tradition, belief, age, maturity, "rules" for movie-making, law (in the form of a lovely lawyer, below), prison, torture, voice recognition, and so much more. Further, these incidents seem to mirror each other in ironic ways, and while the movie looks like simplicity itself, its content is anything but.

Taxi is Panafi's most charming, plaintive, complex and inventive work to date. This man ought to be considered a national treasure rather than some kind of criminal. But there you go. How he has been getting away with these provocative little gems of cinema -- in Iran, yet! -- without losing his license, if not his life, is troubling to consider. (You fear for, not just the well-being of the filmmaker, but also for any of the actors/people he uses in his films.) This is "heroic" cinema of the highest order, every bit as entertaining and well-crafted as it is righteous.

Panahi's finale proves a mitzvah filmed with rare sweetness and subtlety -- which is then immediately leavened with an ironic touch of exactly the opposite. If Taxi isn't a cinematic masterpiece (and that's a word I almost never use), I sure wouldn't know what is.

The film -- from Kino Lorber, in Farsi with English subtitles and running just 81 minutes -- opened yesterday, October 2, in New York City at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema, and will grace Los Angeles next Friday, October 9, at various Laemmle theaters. In the weeks to come, TAXI will have opened in 25 cities across the USA.  Click here and scroll way down to see all currently scheduled playdates. 

No comments: