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Jafar Panahi is a paradoxical populist. He makes crowd-pleasing art movies, often set in the midst of life — the urban crowd is one of his subjects — and is a virtuoso director of (non) actors. On the other hand, this most widely seen of Iranian filmmakers is also the most frequently banned.

Like his previous hits The White Balloon and The Circle, Panahi's soccer movie, Offside, is blatantly metaphoric and powerfully concrete, deceptively simple and highly sophisticated in its formal intelligence. Panahi may be a disciple of Iranian modernist Abbas Kiarostami, but he's closer in some ways to Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke, another maker of fictionalized social documentaries — though Panahi works on a less epic scale and is more attached to close-ups than long shots.

Panahi specializes in tumultuous activity in tight spaces: Offside opens on one packed minibus and ends on another. The first hurtles toward Tehran's Azadi Stadium, where Iran is to play a World Cup match against Bahrain; the second, a police van, swerves through streets clogged with chanting hordes in the game's aftermath. Offside is the funniest of Panahi's features, with a carnival atmosphere accentuated from the get-go by the realization that some of the fans en route to Azadi are women in drag.

Among other proscriptions, Iranian women are not permitted to attend sports events, and before the soccer match begins, another game is afoot. "They're pros, they know how to get in — they know all the tricks," one boy tells his buddy, appraising the disguised females on a passing bus. The lone girl on their bus is, however, an obvious novice. She's unconvincingly dressed (her idea of a boy is too stylish) and fatally uncertain. After paying an inflated price for a scalped ticket, she's approached by a guard, instinctively flinches ("Please don't search me"), and winds up in an improvised holding pen on the stadium's upper level, along with a half-dozen other girls.

In a formal as well as political sense, Offside is about what can't be seen. The roar of the crowd is a constant, but the game itself is only intermittently glimpsed. Occasionally, one of the soldiers will report on the progress of the match — or act it out, much to the captives' disgust. These girls are not only more street-smart than the country boys who guard them but more soccer-smart. The soldiers are ashamed and unhappy; their commander is an excitable Azeri who, contemplating his corral, cannot help but reminisce about his farm back home. He's dumbstruck, though, when one girl shows up in a purloined military uniform — arrested because she was ballsy enough to seat herself in an official box.

Given its mouthy protagonists, Offside is a voluble movie — the real match here is between soldiers and prisoners. The two groups have ample time to discuss the nature of the situation. Women are banned from soccer, it's explained, so that male fans can be their profane selves. Asked why Japanese women were admitted to the previous match — a disaster after which seven spectators were trampled to death — a soldier points out that they don't understand Farsi. "Let us in," one girl assures a soldier. "We promise not to listen."

Largely one-sided banter, the contest turns wilder when a soldier is assigned to escort one of the women to the toilet. As the stadium facilities are male-only, she's given a poster to wear as a mask; for his part, the soldier is compelled to secure the graffiti-inscribed washroom in advance of her entry and then, beleaguered as any goalie, hold off six guys trying to break through his outstretched arms. He's saved by an Iranian goal — bladders undrained, the fans rush back to their seats — but he loses his charge, who rushes in as well. Score one for the ladies!

Part sports-inspirational, part women's prison film, Offside confounds expectations regarding genre as well as gender. Panahi has things both ways — his movie is critical and utopian, cinema verité and political allegory. The battle of the sexes is ultimately subsumed in nationalism, but the penitentiary walls cannot hold. The lengthy crowd scenes that end this dodgy, dexterous performance intimate a universal liberation.

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J. Hoberman
Contact: J. Hoberman

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