Take a cursory look at reviews for Jafar Panahi’s latest film, Taxi, and you’ll notice it ranks among the year’s most beloved titles. Between its premiere at the Berlinale earlier this year, where it was greeted with the festival’s highest prize, to its theatrical release in North America last week, few Western critics have anything negative to say about it. Yet, despite what one may expect, Iranian critics have not been similarly enthusiastic. This variance in response has as much to do with the film as an individual work of art as it does with Panahi’s career and his politics. To understand this cool critical reaction, it’s necessary to understand the social machinations that gave birth to Taxi.
When Panahi started his career two decades ago, Iranian cinema was at the peak of its artistic renaissance and international acclaim. With his directorial debut The White Balloon, he burst onto the scene as one of the most promising filmmakers at a time when Iran was producing films at a dizzying pace. Compared to the heights of the mid-1990s, Iran’s national cinema has been in decline for the past few years. If not for a handful of veteran directors and an even smaller group of emerging youngsters, Iranian cinema would suffer irreparable artistic regression. If there has been a single director whose consistency in producing challenging works exemplifies the national cinema’s defiance against its own malaise, it’s Panahi.
Having previously won the Camera d’or for The White Balloon and Golden Lion for The Circle, Panahi added the Berlin Golden Bear this year for Taxi, to his ever-expanding collection of festival trophies. Yet, despite the continued reverence of his work abroad, his relationship with audiences and critics at home has never been as complicated as today, a fate indebted in no small part to the aftermath of his political activism. Following his participation in a protest rally on the streets of Tehran back in 2009, Panahi was arrested and later slapped with a severe sentence that included house arrest and a 20-year ban on filmmaking. Ironically, Panahi has made films at a faster pace than ever before since the ban was first imposed, and his cinema has become, for better and for worse, intertwined with his real-life situation.
With This Is Not a Film, his first film under house arrest, Panahi demarcated his career into pre- and post-ban chapters. A rapid-fire reaction to his legal predicament, Panahi’s first documentary was a forced turning of the lens onto himself. He re-enacted the script of his would-be next film in his living room, filming on his cell phone and narrating the plot. The result was sharp and bitterly funny, even though Panahi’s anger and frustration was palpable. It was surprising, though not unexpected, to discover that a director long considered to be one of Iran’s “social filmmakers,” in the local parlance, had actually never made a film so blatantly critical. Despite their darkness and unrelenting pessimism, films like The Circle and Crimson Gold were subtle commentaries on the problems that plague Iranian society. The bleak picture painted of the lives of lower-class women in the former film, for example, is troubling to watch, but not because the film is blunt in its presentation; rather, the effect of the characters’ devastating stories crawls under our skin and lingers long after the film. Conversely, Offside’s rebellious stance against women’s second-class status was wrapped in the guise of an energetic comedy, a blissfully indirect approach to social cinema. This Is Not a Film’s uncharacteristic forthrightness was understandable because of the special circumstances under which it was made, and the film evolved Panahi’s themes and style.