Hana Saeidi, the bright young niece of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, climbs into the taxi that her uncle is driving on the streets of Tehran. She is holding a camera, excited about her first film class in school.
Her teacher has provided a list of rules to make a "distributable" movie. Among the key rules: "No sordid realism."
In the small and brilliant Jafar Panahi's Taxi, the internationally renowned director has been reduced to making his own brand of "sordid realism" on the sly - that is, realism free of the restrictions of Sharia law. With a small camera mounted on the dashboard of a car, Panahi drives along, picking up passengers and recording them as they debate politics and religion, crime and punishment, Woody Allen and Akira Kurosawa.
In 2010, Panahi was sentenced to six years in prison (which became house arrest, apparently loosely enforced) for "crimes against the country's national security," for "propaganda against the Islamic Republic." He was banned from making films for 20 years.
Yet Panahi - whose work (including The White Balloon, The Mirror, and Crimson Gold) has won awards and praise around the world - was not about to stop. This Is Not a Film, released outside Iran in 2011, was shot on a camcorder and an iPhone in Panahi's apartment. Closed Curtain, which premiered at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival, was made in secret at his villa on the Caspian Sea.
Thanks to the vociferous support of the international film community, Panahi seems to have gained at least a modicum of freedom that allows his work to be distributed beyond Iran's borders. But it's a shaky freedom, with the filmmaker figuratively, if not literally, looking over his shoulder.
Now comes Taxi, in which Panahi proves himself a gracious, if not terribly adept, cabbie (he has to ask for directions, he forgets to take fares). He also proves himself, as always, a remarkably perceptive observer of human behavior. A schoolteacher and a self-described "mugger" debate Iran's harsh laws against thieves. The mugger supports the government's policy of executions; the teacher sees it as an affront to true Islamic society.
A video bootlegger recognizes Panahi and tries to offer him DVDs of The Walking Dead. A motorcyclist hit by a car and bleeding profusely is lifted into the cab, borrowing Panahi's phone to record his last wishes while his wife sits by, wailing, en route to a hospital.
Within the confines of an automobile moving through the big city, Jafar Panahi's Taxi looks onto a world where the social order and the spiritual order are at odds, in flux, where the conversations are sometimes cutting, sometimes comic, sometimes troubled, sometimes profound.
The expression on Panahi's face remains difficult to read: Is he smiling? And if he is, is that a smile of satisfaction, knowing he has just gotten away with making another film?
Directed by Jafar Panahi. With Jafar Panahi and Hana Saeidi. In Farsi with subtitles. Distributed by Kino Lorber.
Running time: 1 hour, 22 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (adult themes).