2006Director: Jafar Panahi
Cast: Shayesteh Irani, Safar Samandar, Shima Mobarak-Shahi
n unwritten ban on the attendance of women at men’s soccer matches stands in for broader proscriptions in the latest testament from Iranian humanist Jafar Panahi, a return to the playful docu-realism of his early films (The White Balloon and The Mirror) after the grim tragedies of The Circle and his Taxi Driver-in-Tehran masterpiece, Crimson Gold. Shot partly during a World Cup-qualifying match between Iran and Bahrain two summers ago, it’s a social/feminist comedy that could easily be underestimated as minor. Notwithstanding its elements of gender-based neo-slapstick, it’s baldly political enough to keep Panahi’s record of features that have been barred from Iran’s theaters at 5-for-5.
Prompted by the failure of the director’s daughter to sneak into a soccer stadium with him, Offside initially follows a watchful, scared girl (Shima Mobarak-Shahi) in male drag who “isn’t a pro” at this subterfuge, as an observant teenage boy on her bus full of chanting fans points out to his friend. It only takes a little haggling with a scalper for the young woman to buy a ticket outside the Tehran arena, but with her clumsy disguise comprised of cap and face paint, she is soon busted by an equally young soldier (he pauses to borrow her cell-phone and reassure his suspicious girlfriend of his fidelity). She’s taken to a holding pen tantalizingly located just behind the grandstand with five other college-aged girls. A couple of the trespassers are spunky archetypes: a sneering smoker (Shayesteh Irani) who knows that a timely headbutt can make a point, and a resourceful one (Mahnaz Zabihi) who temporarily gained a seat by donning an army uniform. A third is an enthusiastic soccer player who argues with one guard about women athletes’ ability.
Just as many other sequences are shot in tight spaces, it’s around the makeshift barricaded cell that the central act revolves, and Panahi avoids dullness by emphasizing the girls’ passion and their jailers’ hardly veiled reluctance at their duty. The detail leader (Safar Samandar) is a grumpy farmer from Azerbaijan who complains of his family’s hard, marginalized life. When one of the detainees asks to visit the men’s room, he asks, “What is it with you Tehrani girls? You don’t know the difference between men and women.” The girls attempt to debate, negotiate or escape, while the soldiers impatiently await further instructions by alternately playing chauvinist bullies or brotherly guardians to their charges, telling them they need to be protected from the carryings-on and swearing of the male crowds. “We promise not to listen,” the tough girl deadpans. As with men outside the stadium who recognize women bound for the game but don’t act to bar them, the soldiers’ prickliness seems a cover for indifference toward the apartheid they’re enforcing, or even tolerance.
The tonal juggling of the simple, absurd scenario with its painful, unjust underpinnings occasionally causes the film to lose its way—the farce of the men’s room visit goes on too long, and there’s a revelation of one girl’s motive in the penultimate scene that’s too unprepared for to have much impact—but some privileged moments deliver a plaintive charge. A prisoner, her face painted with the Iranian flag’s colors, dons her chador to reveal her identity to a friend’s father, an aching, assertive image of rebellion and pride. The excited faces of the detainees as they follow the shouted play-by-play report of one soldier, and later hear the final minutes of the contest on the radio, suggest nationalist sports fandom as an unlikely conduit for social liberation. Concluding with another suspenseful minibus ride, Offside could be accused of eliding the darker endpoints of its social impasse—Panahi confesses he doesn’t know what the ending would be if the match result was different—but its celebratory finale of jubilant fans popping wheelies and waving flags, eventually moving its characters into thronged streets for a victory march, is a handheld DV vision of democracy, lit by a boy’s sparklers and a pre-revolutionary, pre-Shah national hymn on the soundtrack. (Not a spoiler: Iran’s victory in the match is revealed in an opening title.)
Given that this movie, shot surreptitiously after submission of a fake script under a pseudonym to the state film board, has been banned by theocratic censors in Iran, why was the filmmaker’s visa for attending its American opening denied? Need we ask? An artist who subverts mullahs is still a voice from the Axis of Evil, apparently, even with a distribution deal from Sony Classics. The anti-Oliver Stone in his sly, small-scale agitprop, Panahi would need more than a platoon of PR reps to overcome his place of birth, and scale the incurious monolith of official American bigotry. Rather than loudly bang the drum against those who suppress his work, Panahi employs eloquent naturalism and keen use of non-actors to speak against cultural ayatollahs without mentioning names, be they Khamenei or Bush.
Offside is currently playing in limited release.
By: Bill Weber
Published on: 2007-04-04