Arts & Books

Film review: A taxi ride in Tehran that is well worth the fare

Jafar Panahi in Taxi Tehran: excoriating Iran’s disgraceful theocracy

With every passing year the London Film Festival (LFF) seems to get bigger and, on the face of it, more commercial. Thanks to its blockbuster galas – this time around we had the likes of Suffragette (with its red carpet-invading protesters) and the glossy Brooklyn – LFF has gained an increasing amount of attention and established itself as a major part of the capital’s cultural life. That’s good news, and so is the fact that away from the glittering “event” screenings there is still plenty of eclecticism to keep cineastes happy: this year we got Ben Wheatley’s weird, if not always wonderful, take on JG Ballard’s High Rise, and a Canadian effort entitled Closet Monster, featuring Isabella Rossellini voicing a talking hamster, to name just a couple.

Religion, unsurprisingly, figures prominently no matter what year it is, and 2015’s films tackling faith have been a mixed bag. Of a handful that deal explicitly with the Catholic Church, the best is undoubtedly Pablo Larraín’s The Club, about a group of Chilean priests, all guilty of different crimes and living in exile in a shabby house. Their relatively peaceful existence is shattered when a victim of one of their number arrives at the door, swiftly followed by a merciless representative of the Church hierarchy who wants to close down the safe house. Asking tough questions about how the Church treats vulnerable people, both in the priesthood and among the laity, The Club is a bleak but powerful piece of filmmaking.

Away from Catholicism, persecution, either of or by religious people, is the preoccupation of two magnificent films. Son of Saul, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes, tells the story of a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz who embarks on a mission to give his son’s body a proper burial. First-time director László Nemes makes the bold decision to keep his camera close to his actors’ faces throughout. As a result, the horrors of the death camp remain blurred and at the margins, yet, somehow, this serves to ramp up the violence and tension to a devastating degree.

Merging documentary and fiction, Taxi Tehran, inspired surely by Abbas Kiarostami’s 2002 film Ten, sees the much-persecuted director Jafar Panahi play himself, taking on the role of an amateurish cabbie ferrying a succession of people around the capital city. It’s consistently hilarious (the best gag involving an inevitable mishap with a goldfish bowl), but the film’s true mission, to excoriate Iran’s disgraceful theocracy, is achieved with razor-sharp precision.

Taxi Tehran was my personal highlight of LFF and I’ll be hailing another ride with it when it’s released in cinemas at the end of the month.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (23/10/15)

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