Can a filmmaker under house arrest make any more defiant a gesture than by directing a bonafide road movie? Such is the question implicitly posed by “Taxi,” the third surreptitious film a clef directed by Iran’s Jafar Panahi since his 2010 conviction on charges of conspiring to create anti-Islamic propaganda. For an exceptionally lithe, inventive 80 minutes (staged in simulated real time), Panahi himself drives a taxi through the busy streets of Tehran, picking up various passengers who serve as conduits for a provocative discussion of Iranian social mores and the art of cinematic storytelling. Although there’s nothing terribly new to what Panahi is saying or how he goes about saying it, the fact that he’s able to say it at all is no small feat: a victory that should ensure “Taxi” makes many more stops around the world before returning to the garage.
When an artist in any medium is forced to work under the thumb of an oppressive, censorious political regime, some critics may be tempted to award an automatic “A” for effort. There was no need to grade on a curve, however, where Panahi’s 2011 “This Is Not a Film” was concerned — an ingenious essay movie that used the director’s limited mobility as a springboard for infinite musings on the interplay of life and art. But Panahi’s 2013 follow-up, “Closed Curtain,” was a more complicated case — another self-reflexive, housebound tale that, especially in its second half, turned surprisingly solipsistic and self-pitying. Now “Taxi” finds Panahi both re-energized and, for the first time since his arrest, venturing back out into the world, albeit from the inside of a car (an even more confined space than the settings of Panahi’s two previous films, and an irony hardly lost on the filmmaker himself).
Panahi establishes the ground rules early on, when three disparate passengers enter his taxi in rapid succession: a loud-mouthed know-it-all who takes quick note of the small camera mounted on Panahi’s dashboard; a mild-mannered female schoolteacher who gets into a feisty row with the first man over the morality of capital punishment and Sharia law; and a flop-sweating DVD bootlegger (a nod to the only way “Taxi” will ever be seen in its home country), who recognizes Panahi and, after the other two passengers alight, asks the director if they were in fact actors playing out a scripted scene. The answer seems fairly obvious, but it’s one Panahi never directly divulges in “Taxi,” allowing the film to maintain the teasing, is-it-live-or-is-it-Memorex surface that has been one of the hallmarks of contemporary Iranian cinema (notably in Panahi’s own films and those of his mentor, Abbas Kiarostami, whose own 2002 taxicab drama, “Ten,” is an obvious influence here).
Thus the stage is set for a series of deft seriocomic episodes that bring Panahi (who exudes a warm, almost Chaplinesque presence) into contact with a diverse cross-section of Tehran society, all captured from the fixed p.o.v. of the taxi’s dash-cam. Time and again, the car becomes a kind of impromptu film studio. In one of Panahi’s best sequences, a young woman and her considerably older husband are ushered into the back of the cab after the latter has been badly injured in a bicycle accident — a potentially grim scene that turns darkly funny when the bloodied, hysterical man demands to be videotaped reciting his last will and testament (forcing Omid, the DVD bootlegger, into service as an amateur videographer).
Elsewhere, a university film student begs Panahi’s advice about what kind of story he should tell in his upcoming short film, and later, Panahi’s precocious young niece, who’s also studying film, expresses her frustration over what is (and isn’t) officially permissible in Iranian cinema per the national Ministry of Islamic Guidance. (In yet another case of Panahi’s movie glancing back at itself, “Taxi” is presented without any official cast or crew credits — the result, according to an onscreen text, of the film having been made outside of the Ministry’s official purview.)
At such moments, it becomes clear that “Taxi” is talking about something much bigger than Panahi’s own personal situation, but rather the dilemma of how to keep telling meaningful stories in a country that places so many prohibitions on an artist’s ability to express him- or herself. The result is a film of quiet but profound outrage, laughing on the surface, but howling in anger just beneath.