Before we get into the meat of this review, first a bit of context needs to be addressed: director Jafar Panahi was (and in many ways, still is) one of the most prominent figures in the Iranian New Wave cinematic movement, along with the recently deceased Abbas Kiarostami. After spending his entire career making films with noticeably progressive political slants, as well as pointed criticisms of the Iranian government and their cultural standards, Panahi was arrested in early 2010 and sentenced to – among other charges – a 20 year ban from making any films, or doing anything remotely film-related, such as screenwriting or giving interviews. But despite this, Panahi has already made *three* quasi-documentary style films whilst under house arrest, each with the very limited resources at his disposal and only his creativity and filmmaking prowess to guide him. The first of these was called This is Not a Film and was released in 2011 to heaps of critical and cultural praise. The most recent of his micro-budget outings was released last year and goes by a few titles, but for the remainder of this review will be referred to simply as Taxi.
Not unlike certain films by Jafar Panahi’s mentor Abbas Kiarostami (most notably Taste of Cherry and Ten),Taxi seeks to be “a portrait of the Iranian capitol of Tehran” (those from the words of the filmmakers themselves) and does so by the most minimal of means, technologically speaking. The film follows a day in the life of Mr. Panahi, who is forced to drive a taxi cab in order to make ends meet during his filmmaking ban (whether this is based on fact or exaggerated for the sake of creating drama is left open ended), and during the course of this day he encounters a parade of colorful civilians entering and exiting the backseat of his cab.
As is the case in the majority of Iranian cinema from the past couple of decades, not much happens in the way of a forward moving plot or story, yet the entire film is still as watchable as anything with hundreds of times its budget, which is as much of a testament to the filmmaking prowess of Jafar Panahi as anything. Even stripped of all creative resources and left with nothing but a digital camera at his disposal, he still creates one of the most engaging and accessible (depending on who you ask) films of the decade. Unbelievable.
One of the most immediately striking aspect of Taxi is pretty clearly the way in which it’s made, that being the uber-low budget form. And within these extremely limited means, heaps of social commentary and narrative experimentation are found. That, and the way it manages to humanize Iranian citizens and its culture as a whole is simply unprecedented. Just as the case was with all of Panahi’s previous features, both pre-filmmaking ban and afterwards, modern Iranian society isn’t stereotypically portrayed as a gaggle of helpless, beleaguered victims of a repressive governmental regime, like those viewing things from a more Western perspective might be expecting. But rather, they’re seen as average, everyday working class citizens, each dealing with their own set of daily struggles, similar to that of most common people all over the globe; discontentment with a job, bonding with family members, etc. If simply depicting a portrait of an Iranian lifestyle is all the Jafar Panahi was going for with this film, then he succeeded mightily in achieving that.
With the recent passing of the aforementioned Abbas Kiarostami, now would seem like as opportune a time as ever to get into Iranian cinema – and for my money, Taxi is as good a place to start as any. With literally a fraction of the budget, it does more to improve and push forward the cinematic form than the latest $200 million Hollywood effects extravaganza. It’s also a masterclass in generating empathy through film and works wonders in humanizing the working class in Iran, especially for a more Western viewing audience. This certainly one cinematic experiment not to be missed, at least not by those who claim to be true fans of the art-form.