Eugene Weekly : Movie Review : 6.14.07


Six women sneak into an Iranian soccer match

OFFSIDE: Directed by Jafar Panahi. Written by Panahi and Shadmehr Rastin. Cinematography, Rami Agami. Music, Yuval Barazani. Starring Safdar Samandar, Sima Moborak-Shahi and Shayesteh Irani. Sony Pictures Classics, 2007. PG. 88 minutes. In Persian with English subtitles.

Golnaz Farmani, Ida Sadeghi, Shayesteh Irani and Nazanin Sedighzadeh in Offside

At first blush, Offside, the new film by director Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon), doesn’t appear to have much in common with absurdist theater. After all, Offside, in which six girls sneak into a World Cup qualifying match between Iran and rival Bahrain, is a naturalistic, almost documentary-style film about the universal appeal of soccer, Iran’s most popular sport. But Panahi has more on his mind than an exposé of women at public sporting events, from which they’ve been banned since 1979. For about 40 of the film’s almost 90 minutes, Offside achieves the quality of a Beckett or Ionesco play, during which gender, place and even time itself are all called into question.

Don’t misunderstand: Offside is no Waiting for Godot or Rhinoceros. Panahi was inspired to make Offside when the director, a controversial figure in Iran, tried to escort his wife and daughter to a soccer game. As expected, the women were turned away at the gate; when Panahi’s daughter managed to sneak in moments later, the director felt the kernel of a story taking shape. In order to make Offside appear as realistic as possible, Panahi used non-actors, encouraging the girls to create their own male disguises. None of the characters have names. There is very little music in Offside, other than the singing of traditional soccer hymns, and while the opening scenes feel realistic — a costumed girl rides the bus toward the stadium along with two dozen unruly boys — the girl appears timid and destined for trouble. She couldn’t pass for a boy if her life depended on it, which it does.

Once discovered, the girls are brought to a makeshift cell atop the stadium, and it’s here that Offside becomes something extraordinary. At first, the soldiers on duty assert their authority naturally, their manner confident but flat and bureaucratic. But it quickly becomes clear that these men are ineffectual, afraid, trapped — and they’re actually boys in men’s clothing. Compared to the soldiers, the girls are smarter, tougher and more knowledgeable about soccer. As the stadium crowd roars in the background, we sense that the girls, although trapped in a pen, are far more alive than their male counterparts, who are prisoners to an oppressive tradition and culture. The soldiers are assimilated and emasculated, creating an absurdist situation: The only reason the boys have the upper hand is because of the rules, which are arbitrary and stupid. The girls actually begin to coach the male soldiers in the art of metaphor, disguise and — not surprisingly — soccer, a fitting counterpoint to the actual game within the stadium.

Eventually, a man referred to as “the Chief” arrives, ushering everyone onto a bus for transport to the police station. A true bureaucrat, the Chief actually wields some authority, fracturing the delicate balance of the film’s middle section. The final bus ride is a joyous romp as boys and girls alike listen to the finale of the game on the radio, but we never re-enter that strange, philosophical bubble we inhabited at the stadium. Still, Offside is a meaningful and occasionally powerful film, one that manages to say a great deal with very little fanfare.