Revolving around an Iranian qualifying soccer match for the World Cup, Offside is itself a series of games: Women pose as men, jeer their captors, and ultimately dance to freedom. The film’s underlying subject is the same as in director Jafar Panahi’s most harrowing work, The Circle, a roundelay about women’s oppression in the Islamic republic. The tone is lighter and the outcome less severe. But in substituting irony for despair, Panahi hasn’t softened his message. Offside’s bitterness is submerged yet unmistakable.
Filmed in part during the actual 2005 Iran-Bahrain match that provides its setting, that’s as unified in place and time as a classical Greek drama.. The action is restricted to the few hours required to arrive at the game, watch (or hear) it being played, and celebrate the results. In their script, Panahi and Shadmehr Rastin use semi-improvised fiction to address a real-life stricture: Women are banned from public sporting events in Iran, supposedly to protect them from profanities and the sight of male players’ bodies. To brave such indignities, the film’s female characters dress as men and enter the stadium, where they’re caught and turned over to some bewildered soldiers. The resulting conflict is limited mostly to talk, although under these circumstances the simplest events become fraught. How, for example, can a guard escort a female captive to the toilet in a stadium that has no ladies’ room?
The events begin with an older man (Reza Farhadi) looking for his daughter; he explains that her brothers will kill her if they find her dressed as a boy. He joins a caravan heading to Tehran’s Azadi Stadium, including a minibus carrying a disguised female fan, played by Sima Mobarak Shahi. (All the actors are nonprofessionals, and most of their characters are not identified by name.) At the venue, the young woman wangles a ticket from a scalper who charges a substantial surcharge for female purchasers, but she panics and reveals herself when a security guard goes to search her. Soon, she’s transferred to a holding pen with other women, including one who was gutsy enough to don an army uniform and sit in an official box.
The women verbally joust with the soldiers, who are led by a small-town guy (Safar Samandar) who waxes nostalgic for his cattle and can’t believe how brazen young Tehrani women are. (For all their relative privilege, the men in Panahi’s films usually seem nearly as disaffected as the women.) The detainees demonstrate their superior knowledge of the sport and ask why Japanese women were allowed to attend the recent IrannJapan match, which ended in a deadly stampede. One troublemaker, arrested for holding fireworks, protests being grouped with the women. Meanwhile, the prisoners cheer every goal scored by the national team of the country that oppresses them. They’re not full citizens, but they are total fans.
Panahi works in a mode similar to that of his mentor, Abbas Kiarostami, combining formalist experiments with near-documentary realism. Like Kiarostami’s movies, Panahi’s are masterpieces of indirection; they’re defined by what can’t be shown, whether it’s a soccer match or a woman’s hair. When making a film about girls or women—as all but one of his features are—Panahi never takes his camera into a private place, since under Iran’s censorship code he cannot show women without the cloaks and head scarves they remove at home. Staking out his territory in crowds, the director shows his country as a sort of prison for women. He’s mingling the literal and metaphorical when he opens The Circle behind bars or stages much of Offside in an impromptu lockup.
Shot without permission using digital-video equipment, Offside is a subversive film that only an exceedingly uptight regime could hate. It ends, after all, with a scene of communal jubilation, set to a patriotic standard. (The director was careful to pick a well-known anthem that doesn’t extol either the Shah or the ayatollahs.) Although banned from theaters in Iran, the film was widely seen on bootleg DVDs, and Panahi has speculated that the government circulated the discs to preclude demand for a theatrical release. Iranian officials must have seen Offside as a troublesome hybrid of political art film and flag-waving crowd-pleaser: Like its central characters, the movie loves its country even as it resists the absurdities of Islamic puritanism.
With its heady mixture of humor, outrage, and patriotism, Offside reveals much about a country that many Americans don’t care to understand. Yet it would be a mistake to see Panahi’s latest feature merely as a news dispatch or ethnographic document. It’s a smart, funny, brilliantly conceived exercise that teaches as much about filmmaking as about Iran. At a time when Hollywood mega-movies show the diminishing impact of simulation, Offside is a masterful demonstration of the power of suggestion.