Jafar Panahi looks happier than he has in a while -- and he's getting out. That's encouraging, and it doesn't mean that his latest act of defiance, the film Taxi, isn't bold. Once again creating cinema in spite of Iran's twenty-year edict forbidding him to do so, this most daring of directors, set free from house arrest, has ventured out into the streets of Tehran to document truths through fiction. (His last two movies, This Is Not a Film and Closed Curtain, were shot within his homes.)
This time, as our amused teddy bear of a tour guide, he tools around his town in a taxi, a camera mounted atop his rearview mirror. He picks up regular Tehranians, invests us in their dramas, then drops them off. He winches the camera, when appropriate, to focus on a passenger, or on the street ahead, where real life clangs on -- and where, at any moment, the authorities might turn up. (Panahi never directly addresses that possibility, but the film is steeped in that tension.)
Panahi has always mined art from the seam between actual reality and cinema's failure to approximate it. He's playing himself, here, and some passengers recognize him as the famous film director -- they're quick to accept that, yep, after the way he antagonized the powers that be, he might just be driving a taxi these days.
But for all its layered self-referentiality, or its cutting laughter about censorship and injustice, Taxi is paced like a revue, with a showman's élan. The riders, all played by unidentified amateur actors, initiate comic and dramatic scenes that first reveal the complexities of Iranian life. It's a ride.