A cross between socially conscious cinema and the irrepressible "Bend It Like Beckham," "Offside" is a charming, character-driven film that conveys enormous feeling for its people. These include both the determined young women for whom soccer is "more important than food" and the over-matched soldiers whose heart really isn't in keeping them away from the World Cup qualifying match they are determined to see.
Panahi, however, is a different story. Almost alone among his countrymen, Pahani believes in strongly dramatic scenarios, situations in which things happen and conflicts arise. He is a social filmmaker in the classic neorealist mode, a director who sees the drama in everyday situations and believes in cinema's power to point out problems and eliminate injustice. To be that kind of filmmaker in a theocracy like Iran takes some doing, and though Panahi's films gain strength from having substantial issues such as the plight of women to deal with, he also has to be careful, as Soviet bloc directors had to be in years past, to say things without seeming to say them. As it stands, except for bootleg DVDs, his films are almost impossible to see in his homeland.
All Panahi's films have a realistic quality, but "Offside" is a triumph of documentary-style cinma vrit. Much of it was actually shot, using small cameras and nonprofessional actors, inside Tehran's packed Azadi Stadium on the day of the 2006 match between Iran and Bahrain to determine which country would qualify for the World Cup. This was a tremendous risk for Panahi (who produced, directed, edited and co-wrote with Shadmehr Rastin) not only for logistical reasons but also because the film would have been impossible if the game didn't turn out the way the script intended.
"Offside" opens not at the game but with a distraught father searching minibuses full of raucous stadium-bound fans chanting "Iran winner! Bahrain loser!" He has just found out his daughter will be trying to make her way into the game, and he fears dire consequences for her if she is busted. Looking almost as worried is a young person on the bus whose careful attempts at disguise — hair under a large cap, flag draped over shoulders, Iran's red, white and green colors painted on the face — do not really hide the fact that this is a woman trying to get over the wall and into the game.
With uniformed soldiers and zealous officials in plainclothes everywhere, this proves a difficult maneuver to pull off for the entire game, and much of "Offside" takes place in a makeshift holding area on an outer rim of the stadium. There six girls are brought together, exiled to a kind of Pisgah view of the proceedings — they can hear the shouting of the fans but can't see what is going on. In some ways these young women, who range in temperament from demure to devious to confrontational, couldn't be more different. But they share a passion for the sport and are a match for the soldiers guarding them in both personal soccer experience ("I'm a dribble queen," one announces defiantly) and knowledge of Iran's team and its strategies.
Much of "Offside's" drama comes from the often-humorous confrontations between the girls and the not-much-older soldiers, many of whom come from rural areas and are at a loss as to how to defend a system that keeps women from stadiums but allows them into movie theaters.
The great virtue of "Offside," however, is that it never degenerates into an us-versus-them situation. Panahi is as sympathetic to the overmatched soldiers, especially in a wryly farcical going-to-the-bathroom subplot, as he is to the women. He understands that a repressive system victimizes the oppressors as much as the oppressed.
Besides providing a sense of what day-to-day life is like in Iran, "Offside" captures the mass hysteria of fandom, of an addiction so intense that even a blind man feels compelled to attend the game in person rather than listen on the radio.
Finally, and not surprisingly, "Offside" is not about sports at all. It is, in its own quiet and entertaining way, about the value of freedom, dignity and individual choice. By its close we care as much as the captive six do about both soccer in general and the all-important fate of Iran's national team in particular, and that is no small thing.
"Offside." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes. In Farsi with English subtitles. Exclusively at Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869; Town Center, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 981-9811; Regal/Edwards Westpark, 3755 Alton Parkway, Irvine, (949) 622-8609.