Ugly Face of the Beautiful Game: A Quiet, Profound Iranian Comedy Shows the World Cup in a New Light

Article excerpt

Offside (PG)

dir: Jafar Panahi

Iranian film-makers routinely find themselves banned or thwarted, but, even by this standard, Jafar Panahi has had it tough. His lyrical 1995 debut, The White Balloon, was a contender for an Oscar until his government withdrew it in protest at a US Congress decision to plough $20m into covert operations against Iran. Six years later, he was on his way from Hong Kong to Buenos Aires. During a stopover at JFK Airport in New York, he was shackled and held in cells for 12 hours for refusing to be fingerprinted and photographed. Any sane person must question the logic, particularly as Ron Howard and Michael Bay are free to go about their business unimpeded.

Panahi's latest film, Offside, has been banned in Iran, like his previous two--Crimson Gold (2003), a thriller about a pizza deliveryman's slide into crime, and The Circle (2000), about women struggling in a sexist society. But if he's feeling despondent, it doesn't show. Offside is energised by freewheeling camera-work, zesty performances and an impish spirit that keeps the action teetering on the brink of screwball.

Akram (Golnaz Farmani) is easy to spot on the supporters' bus heading for the World Cup qualifying match at Tehran stadium in 2005. She's sitting with the peak of her cap pulled down as the others chant, "Long live Iran! Down with Bahrain!" The colours of the Iranian flag are daubed on her cheeks like war paint. And she's the only female. Arriving at the stadium, Akram spots others determined to evade the ban on women at soccer matches. One has borrowed a blind man's glasses and white stick; another is dressed as a soldier.

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Men become giddy when they encounter these women in disguise. One fan has an attack of chivalry: "I'll help you if there's any trouble," he says breathlessly. "Stop coming the hero," snorts Akram. When she tries to buy a black-market ticket, she is rebuffed by the tout. "I won't let you go into a crowd of men," he declares, as you struggle to get your head around the concept of a ticket tout with principles. Once Akram is caught by the authorities, she is herded into a holding pen with four similar offenders. They're close enough to hear the match: the chaotic whistles, cheers and drumming of the unseen fans keep erupting throughout the film, creating a soundtrack comically out of sync with the images. …