A section of Taxi is devoted to an encounter between two Iranian filmmakers. One of them is Jafar Panahi, the director of this movie and one of the most internationally celebrated figures in contemporary Iranian cinema. The other is his niece Hana, a sharp-tongued tween who must make a short movie as part of a school assignment. The teacher has handed out a set of guidelines that are more or less consistent with the government’s censorship rules.
Mr. Panahi is a longstanding expert in such matters, with extensive firsthand knowledge of how Iranian authorities deal with filmmakers who displease them. In 2010, he was officially barred from pursuing his profession, and Taxi is the third feature he has made in defiance of — and also, cleverly, in compliance with — that prohibition.
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The first, shot largely on a mobile-phone camera when Mr. Panahi was under intense legal pressure from the government in 2011, was This Is Not a Film, a meditation on cinema and freedom as nuanced as its title is blunt. It was followed by Closed Curtain (2014), a through-the-looking-glass hybrid of documentary and melodrama that explores the porous boundary between cinema and reality.
Taxi, which won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival in February, takes up some of the same themes. It’s playful and thoughtful, informed by the director’s affable, patient, slightly worried demeanor. His kind face is almost always on screen, but he’s not a self-conscious presence like, say, Woody Allen (whose name is dropped) or Nanni Moretti. He’s a regular guy going about his day. What does it take to be a filmmaker? Maybe just curiosity, compassion and open eyes.
A camera, too, of course. Which hardly counts as special equipment these days. In Taxi, everybody has one, and the conceit of the movie is that its auteur is a humble cabdriver with a camera mounted on the dashboard of his car. He’s not really trying to fool anyone. Mr. Panahi is well known enough to be recognized by some of his passengers, most of whom may not really be passengers at all, but people he has cajoled into playing versions of themselves. A lot of what we see seems contrived. But then again, a lot of it seems spontaneous. It’s almost impossible to tell the difference until the brilliant final shot. But can you even call it a “shot” when the camera has been left running by accident?
This kind of ambiguity is part of the fun: Taxi is full of wry jokes, surprising incidents and allusions to Mr. Panahi’s earlier work. He is a pretty bad taxi driver, unsure of the routes to well-known Tehran landmarks and less than diligent about collecting fares and delivering customers to their destinations. “I’ll let you out here and you can get another cab,” he says more than once. This creates a lot of turnover, and a series of “chance” encounters with fellow citizens, including a dealer in pirated DVDs (Mr. Panahi used to be one of his customers) and two older women carrying goldfish in an open glass bowl.
Those women may remind Mr. Panahi’s fans of The White Balloon, his first feature, which also involved a goldfish. Taxi abounds with similar reminders: anecdotes that recall episodes in The Circle and Offside; a glimpse of a man delivering pizza brings to mind Crimson Gold; Hana’s wait for her uncle to pick her up at school is an echo of The Mirror. This may sound like artistic vanity, but it’s actually a kind of humility. Mr. Panahi pulled those stories from the life that surrounded him, and that life — the bustle and contention of Tehran; the cruelty and hypocrisy of Iranian society; the kindness and tenacity of ordinary people — remains an inexhaustible reservoir of narrative possibilities.
And also a fertile breeding ground for cinema. Hana’s school project is just one of several movies tucked inside of Taxi. An old friend of Mr. Panahi’s shares a security video recording a crime committed against him. A man who has been in a motorbike accident, his bleeding head cradled in the lap of his anguished wife, asks Mr. Panahi to make a cellphone video of his last testament. Even the simplest, most unmediated records of human behavior are shaped, edited and manipulated. Everyone is a filmmaker.
Taxi, though, happens to be the work of a great one, one of the most humane and imaginative practitioners of the art currently working. The Circle was an unsparing look at the condition of women under the thumb of traditional patriarchy and religious dictatorship. Crimson Gold cast a harsh light on Iran’s economic inequalities and on its neglect of its military veterans. These films are powerful pieces of social criticism, but it is their combination of structural elegance with tough naturalism that places them among the essential movies of our time.
The same can be said about Taxi, which offers, in its unassuming way, one of the most captivating cinematic experiences of this year. Though it is gentle and meditative rather than confrontational, the film nonetheless bristles with topical concerns. It begins with a tense back-seat argument about the death penalty and eventually turns its gaze on poverty, violence, sexism and censorship. Like Mr. Panahi’s cab, his film is equipped with both windows and mirrors. It’s reflective and revealing, intimate and wide-ranging, compact and moving.
Writer-director: Jafar Panahi.
A Kino Lorber release. Running time: 81 minutes. In Persian with English subtitles. In Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema, Miami Beach Cinematheque.