[Marxism] Another "Taxi" review
lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Oct 2 14:02:38 MDT 2015
NY Times, Oct. 2 2015
Review: In ‘Taxi,’ a Filmmaker Pushes Against Iranian Censorship From
Behind the Wheel
By A. O. SCOTT
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.
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
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.
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