Jafar Panahi would, no doubt, prefer to be set free from the restrictions – no longer full house arrest, but stringent enough – placed upon him by the Iranian authorities.
It cannot, however, be denied that his creative circumlocutions have produced some extraordinary films.
Panahi follows up the excellent This is not a Film and the slightly dry Closed Curtain with his cheekiest and most playful subversion yet. Tehran Taxi, winner of the Golden Bear at Berlin, feels a little like a conversation with Abbas Kiarostami's 2002 picture Ten, in which a fixed camera recorded a female driver as she travelled through Tehran.
Thirteen years later, with tiny video cameras everywhere, Panahi can integrate the recording equipment into the story. We are asked to believe that the director, now working as a taxi driver, has mounted the camera as a security device. Sometimes it is swivelled round to catch what’s happening in the road. For the most part it looks back at the two front seats.
In his travels, Panahi – a cheery teddy bear of a driver – picks up both friends and strangers. Some appear to be playing parts. Some are clearly who they claim to be. A few look to be unaware citizens (spiritual cousins of Scarlett Johansson's passengers from Under the Skin perhaps).
The conceit allows Panahi to poke about all corners of Iranian society. One man argues for the death penalty. Panahi’s niece passes on her teacher’s attempts at religious indoctrination. For the most part, however, Panahi offers us reasonable, tolerant folk arguing for reasonable, tolerant philosophies. The oppressive regime has failed to crush the joie de vivre from the folk in the back of this particular cab.
This is not to suggest Tehran Taxi dodges the issues. Panahi picks up a lawyer who is not allowed to practice. Concerns about film censorship edge into the conversations. In order to be "screenable" the film-maker must, apparently, "avoid use of sordid realism". There's certainly a bit of the latter in Tehran Taxi. Yet here it is on the screen. Take that.