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April 18-24, 2007

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Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics Inc. ©2006 CTP Film Company
No-passing zone: Golnaz Farmani can't get to the good seats in 'Offside.'

Goal Oriented

Jafar Panahi's 'Offside' keeps viewers, like its Iranian women fans, just outside the game

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

LIKE HIS other films, Jafar Panahi's Offside has been banned from Iranian cinemas. His colleagues, for the most part, tend to work within their government's strict censorship guidelines, but Panahi refuses to play ball. He has become the designated teller of stories about the underprivileged, and about women in general. His masterpiece, The Circle (2001), was a brilliant yet hopeless triptych about women prisoners (literally and figuratively) and their various forms of sexual oppression, ranging from pregnancy to prostitution. Offside is considerably lighter and more enjoyable; it's merely concerned with the fact that Iranian women can't attend soccer matches.

Two buses loaded with fans roll down the street toward the stadium. On one bus, a man searches for his daughter, who is likely disguised as a boy. On another, a young, cute girl (Sima Mobarak-Shahi) sits quietly, her face painted in Iran's colors and her head covered by a baseball cap with flaps. She wears giant, baggy clothes, but she just can't stop looking like a girl. Panahi follows her almost hopeless quest to get into the stadium for the big Iran vs. Bahrain game, a real-life qualifying match for the 2006 World Cup. She pays exorbitant fees for tickets and is almost immediately nabbed by a security guard.

The first girl (none of the girls are given names) is taken to a makeshift holding pen at the top level of the stadium, where the game rages on within earshot but out of sight. Panahi shows only one quick shot of the game in progress, forcing us into the women's plight. A half-dozen girls in all are caught; one looks quite boyish, while another, dressed in a guard's uniform, was able to watch the first half before getting caught. One amazing sequence unfolds when one of the girls begs to go to the bathroom, but lo and behold, the stadium only has men's rooms. Mainly, the film sticks to this small prison while the dialogue turns from soccer to the silly rules that keep women out. One of the guards explains, with embarrassed exasperation, that they are trying to protect the women from the crowd's foul language.

Panahi studied with Iran's directorial grandmaster, Abbas Kiarostami, working as an assistant on one of Kiarostami's films (Through the Olive Trees) and receiving the benefit of two Kiarostami-penned screenplays (The White Balloon and Crimson Gold). Like his mentor, Panahi has learned how to use natural space, both confined and open, as the foundation for the film. Many of his earlier films wind through the streets of cities and towns, but this is the first time he has stayed put. Thankfully, Panahi's cinematic process rolls right over any ideas of generic plot, and so he portrays the male guards as vaguely sympathetic and vaguely helpless; they'd like to help, but they're too small to change such a big law. Ultimately, Panahi's final assessment is hopeful, as the outcome of the game bonds everyone together as equals. Even the security van that rolls through the streets at the ending fails to fully contain these women's spirit.

Movie Times Offside (PG; 93 min.), directed by Jafar Panahi, written by Panahi and Shadmehr Rastin, photographed by Rami Agami and Mahmoud Kalari, and starring Sima Mobarak Shahi and Safar Samandar, opens April 20 at Camera 12.

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