Movie Review: Offside
Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian: Worldcup film-making ...
An Iranian comedy about female football fans? An Iranian Bend It Like Beckham? It sounds pretty unlikely. (I can't really imagine Iranian arthouse master Abbas Kiarostami directing Juliet Stevenson doing her "There's-a-reason-Sporty-Spice-doesn't-have-a-boyfriend" speech, unless perhaps she were to do it unsmilingly and at a fraction of the normal speed, with the camera trained enigmatically on her deadpan face while someone else replies.) A football comedy is none the less what Iranian director Jafar Panahi has created with this likeable, gentle and charming film about young women football fanatics, disguised as boys, doing their darnedest to defy the all-male rule and get in to see the Iran v Bahrain qualifying international for the 2006 World Cup. READ MORE
With audacity and flair, Panahi filmed it at the actual stadium, at the actual match, and appeared to have two improvised outcomes broadly in mind in case of victory or defeat - though Iran did in fact qualify and their first match, against Mexico, takes place this Sunday.
Comedian Omid Djalili had a routine about the reaction of the British Iranian community's reaction to Iran's sensational 2-1 victory over the United States in the 1998 World Cup final.
Well-heeled professionals and store-owners poured out on to the Edgware Road in west London, got in their cars and drove slightly faster and more happily than usual up and down, honking discreetly, waving flags modestly, smiling benignly: the best-behaved victory celebration in the history of football. The match ignited an enormous groundswell of interest in football in Iran, and played its part in a vibrant youth culture in which Iran's young women saw a chance to play their part. The match was also notable, as it happens, for the spirit of sportsmanship in which it was played, with an exchange of flowers and gifts with the American team before kick-off - although it has to be said the final result did not further football's global advance into the US, and the idea of a good-humoured sporting contest between these two countries now seems very remote.
At any rate, football in Iran is now very big and Offside genially taps into this mood. We see a girl wearing nondescript, floppy sports gear, with the national colours painted on her face, sitting on a coach with a rowdy bunch of lads, desperately hoping not to get caught. Her father, utterly distraught, is out looking for her. One boy spots her disguise and wishes her good luck - but she is in no mood to be patronised. Shrugging off his condescending good wishes, she joins the crowds outside the stadium, buys a ticket from a tout, only to be caught by the police and led away to a special holding pen of women football fans. They must then go through agonies of listening to the roar of the crowd and trying to work out what is happening from the uneducated commentaries of the national service boys in uniform who have them under lock and key.
Panahi gently establishes the keynote of knowing yet unworldly humour by having one of his resentful, miserable squaddies borrow the captured woman's mobile phone to call his wife - and then suffer torments when she calls him back on that number and demands to know why a woman's voice has answered the phone. His superior officer has the world on his shoulders in having to keep this bunch of uproarious women in line, whingeingly pointing out that he is at heart a country boy, who desires nothing more than to be relieved of his military duties and return to his farm to look after his cattle. But this looks almost impossible when one of his junior officers has to escort one of the women to use the men's lavatory and she escapes. With six captured women reported, and only five likely to be present and correct when he has to hand them over, it looks very much as if he will be punished by being kept in the army forever - and he can say farewell to his rural paradise.
This is one of those very rare films that, with no very obvious and coercive narrative structure, simply goes with its own self-created flow, and never looks pointless or directionless. In recent years, I have fallen out of love with the obscurantist, miserablist tendency in Iranian cinema: the low point coming with Babak Payami's ineffably gloomy Silence Between Two Thoughts (2004). Yet other movies have shown an energy and freshness. One such is Kamal Tabrizi's comedy The Lizard (2005), and this is another such: approachable, accessible, yet with the delicacy and subtlety that characterises the best of Iranian movie-making. I liked it a lot better than Panahi's crime drama Crimson Gold (2003) and rank it as equal, in its unassuming way, to his excoriating drama The Circle (2001). It is a quietly intelligent and humorous alternative look at football, pop culture and the position of women.