on Jafar Panahi’s ‘Taxi’

ArticleJames Quandt at Artforum:

IN HIS TRILOGY of immurement—This Is Not a Film (2011), Closed Curtain (2013), and now Taxi—Iranian director Jafar Panahi, banned from making films and placed under house arrest (until very recently, we surmise), has evaded government embargo by surreptitiously shooting movies in, respectively, his apartment, his beachfront home on the Caspian Sea, and a cab traversing the streets of Tehran, transforming his own physical and artistic detention into a metaphor for his country’s psychic imprisonment. (The persecuted Turkish auteur Yilmaz Güney similarly turned his ordeal of incarceration into national allegory, but in a far more drastic manner.) That the director of such teeming, expansive works as The Circle (2000) and Offside (2006) should find himself limited to the confines of a car may seem lamentable, but Taxi has illustrious cab-bound ancestors, most obviously Ten (2002) by Panahi’s mentor, Abbas Kiarostami, as well as Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth (1991). And with the intrepid Panahi in the driver’s seat as both novice cabbie and veteran filmmaker, spatial restrictions predictably provide ample opportunity for formal innovation.

Framed by two long takes shot out of the cab’s windshield by a camera affixed to the dashboard, an apparatus one passenger mistakes for an “antitheft device” early on so that the film can symmetrically end with the camera’s being stolen, Taxi has struck some critics as serene and freewheeling, but it turns out to be much the opposite. As the engineered irony of that finale suggests, Taxi is highly designed, and though Panahi smiles benevolently throughout, even as his passengers pelt him with insults—his little niece calls him “a hopeless case”—the film’s cumulative portrait of Iran is as dire as anything in his previous cinema.

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