Taxi

Director: Jafar Panahi

Release: 2015

Rating: 8 out of 10

There’s a small moment in Jafar Panahi’s newest film, where the filmmaker’s niece tries to make a movie from his phone. She’s in a taxi cab by herself and begins to shoot a small boy who takes some money off of the street. She calls the boy over and tells him to put the money back, for her movie due in class needs to follow Iranian censorship laws. Since the boy has broken these laws, she can’t release the movie. While the boy has had nothing to do with the film, he’s still asked to change his actions and attitude for government reasons. Like any viewer of film in Iran, they’re forced to conform unconsciously to the banning of certain art. Everyone is expected to follow this, for the sake of decency. The public, the boy, and Panahi himself, all must conform.

Jafar Panahi has been banned from making films for a 20-year period and sentenced to house arrest by the Iranian government. Since this ruling in 2011, Panahi has made two other features, the in-house documentary This Is Not A Film and the semi-surreal Closed Curtain. I’ve only seen the latter of the two and wasn’t terribly impressed. It came off as a tad bit whiny, understandably so at the horribly treatment Panahi has received over the years. but never evolved past that point. A creative struggle of artistic expression versus depressive thoughts consumed that work, though it’s biggest shortcoming was only having Panahi ‘s suffering shown. In Taxi, the camera focuses less on the director and expands it’s horizons. Oddly enough, it achieves all of this by not moving outside of a taxi cab.

The films stars Panahi as himself, a passive observer to modern day Iran. He drives around the city’s capital of Tehran in an aforementioned taxi cab, and picks up seemingly random strangers. The film’s shot in a somewhat documentary style, with emphasis placed on action being seen though a camera placed in the front of the taxi. (How many of his encounters are true to life is hard to figure out. A handful of encounters are too incredible to actually happen  randomly and some angles are obviously taken without the cab’s monitor camera. If all or none of these events are true doesn’t really matter in the end.) With each person he picks up, discussions of government brutality, sexism, religion, and moral rightness take place. All of a sudden, Panahi’s biggest weakness has been reversed. No longer are we only concerned with him, but Tehran’s population as a whole.

The film transcends the limitations of not only the Iranian government, but  of basic filmmaking. So many ideas, stories, and snapshots enter and exit the taxi, with the camera never leaving the vehicle. One of the residents is a film student, who asks Panahi what films he enjoys and what’s good cinema. The response: “Everything is worth watching.” Panahi takes all people into account, understanding their needs above any idea of what’s filmable. Everyone deserves to be represented.  Everyone matters in the creation of art. That’s what the Iranian government will never be able to stop: the need and want to create beyond any boundary.

It becomes a bit more preachy by the end, and I’m not certain by that point a full on discussion of “the truth” had to be spoken. By this point, the audience realizes that the truth comes through art and the government will do anything to repress that. It’s a small complaint from a miraculous film however. It’s a love letter to cinema, the truth, people’s ability to create, and how all three can intertwine beautifully.

The Headless Woman

Director: Lucrecia Martel

Release: 2008

Rating: 6 out of 10

Being left cold after a film viewing is something of a complaint I never really understood up until now. So a film’s supposed to register with you on all emotional levels? Seems a bit more of a personal problem then one the film actually has. What’s changed my views on this was my icy opinion of The Headless Woman, a film I was somewhat enjoying, but felt shut out by how it progressed.

The film follows Verónica (María Onetto), the said headless woman, who has recently hit something with her car, with it appearing to be a dog. Some doubt begins to kick in however, and it seems like a child may have been hit instead. What has been struck by the can doesn’t really matter. All that does is the guilt Verónica tries to suppress from this action and how she slowly becomes unhinged from reality.

If one knows anything about the atrocities committed over the years in Argentina to the aborigines, the film can be seen as a metaphor for the historical repression of guilt. Like the Argentinian government, Verónica chooses to ignore any feeling of remorse for her actions. Her rich family encourages this behavior, but noting she does can help her move past the horrendous thing she’s done. It haunts her, and in the film’s most poignant moment, she visits a dying relative with dementia. This relative speaks of the voices in her furniture, the ghosts that inhabit her house. Trying to ignore these voices is all one can try to do in the end.

This would make for some riveting psychoanalytical exploration over the haunting nature of guilt, but the film seems pleased at stopping at the above mentioned metaphor. We seldom understand Verónica beyond her status and basic mental state. Compositions cut off the heads of others, asking who’s the crazy one her: the ones oblivious or the one who understands? It leaves the film feeling empty however, with most other characters being just as underexposed or flat-out nonentities.  For stretches the film has the power to unnerve, with subtle uses of audio tampering or focusing techniques to create an out-of-body experience. Two instances of lighting (one outside and one in) come across horrifically, highlighting the weakening psyche of our lead.

It could just be my low understanding of the Argentinian history beyond its most basic measures, and I’m willing to give the film another look after my education. Until then, this all seems too unexplored for me. A chilling topic, and one that deserves a more richly explored treatment.