The Match Off the Field

Jafar Panahi has always had a knack for paradox, so it's no surprise that the Iranian director's latest film, Offside, should center on the clash of wills in a soccer match while never quite revealing the action. For the most part, the camera is trained on a group of young women penned up just outside a crucial game -- the 2005 Iran-Bahrain World Cup qualifier.

A soccer movie with no soccer, a verité film with allegorical ambitions, a piece of populist entertainment merged with political ideas, Offside is fueled by seeming contradiction. The axis of opposition in the movie is between Offside's two "teams" -- the gang of girls who have dressed up as boys to see the game, and the guards who have to cope with them. It's an easy set up for screeching, and, Offside being an Iranian film --where censor-dodging verbiage or existential silence substitute for scenes with explicit or "immoral" content -- there is a good lot of that. But Panahi seems to exemplify the old Fitzgerald adage about holding two contradictory ideas in one's head at the same time. These two groups may be in conflict with each other, but Panahi is careful to show how they are victims in the same rigged game.

Panahi begins his film in typical form -- on a journey, that of an old man looking for his soccer-loving father. The camera jumps to a bus, where a gang of fans is working themselves into a froth, and alights on a small figure, too slight and delicate of face to be anything but a girl. An obvious amateur at gender stealth, the girl is caught at the entrance gates and shoved into an impromptu pen made of crowd barriers. And here the true game begins. The ensuing verbal match sounds like an impromptu bout of ijtihad -- debate based on sacred Islamic texts, and the key to religious and political reform, according to liberal Islamic scholars.

Why do the women want in so badly? One old man on his way to the match provides an answer -- "You can curse everything and everyone … you can say anything you like and no one bothers you." Even though they are deprived of the chance to attend the game, the girls still insist on their right to shriek and swear.

Part of Panahi's talent is the way in which he develops a seemingly simple idea with great structural rigor -- his films meander with method. The White Balloon followed an inexhaustibly whiny girl on her search for a goldfish -- along the way, she encountered Afghanis with nowhere to go, a boy with the marks of a beating on his face. Filled with interminable waits and strange conversations, Crimson Gold traced a troubled man through the streets of Tehran.

Although much of this film’s action is confined to the young women's impromptu penalty box, Offside explores space with similar aplomb -- a theme in keeping with the film's title. As a result of the offside foul the drag-dressed girls have effectively committed, they've created a new strange space, an area outside the arena where they debate and heckle their guards and re-enact soccer plays. No stranger to the meta-narrative tricks of his mentor, the cinematic great Abbas Kiarostami, Panahi stages his film almost as if it were a play within a play. The camera never enters the girls' zone, nor does it peer into the game the girls are trying to see.

Much of the mouthiness in which the group revels is provided by one rascally young woman, who goads the guards without mercy. She lures one of them into a discussion of why Japanese women fans were able to watch the previous match. He struggles a moment before replying that they could not understand Farsi, hence could not feel violated by the nasty language of the men -- an ironic reply considering that the match was marred by a number of deaths when guards allegedly fired on young Iranians who started to sing a patriotic song and denounce Iran's ruling mullahs, according to some accounts.

Offside's guards are no match for the daring, quick-witted girls, but Panahi isn't interested in lampooning them. These country boys are poor, counting the days until they can return home, determined to follow orders not because they believe in them, but because they are afraid of getting in trouble with "the chief," who in typical Iranian fashion, remains an absent but omnipotent authority. And yet, they find themselves the unhappy emissaries of the enemy, locked into combat with the girls. Their commander, a yeller from Tabriz, howls that he was supposed to go on leave but then was sent to guard the girls. (This shames his charges into temporary silence.) The rebels and their would-be quellers are trapped in a vicious, never-ending game of resistance and retaliation -- no one wants to be where they are, and there are no winners.

With the fates of the girls and their guards already so mingled, it seems pure folly to try to separate them, Panahi seems to implyThe most ebullient exploration of these mashed-together worlds comes with one young woman's desperate bathroom break. Forced to don a poster of a soccer-player's face to shield her identity, she's shepherded to the men's bathroom by a guard, who tells her to cover her eyes from the vulgar graffiti and then fends off legions of men from using the bathroom -- a defender of the Islamic republic and women's virtue, turned toilet goalie. The scene is slashing, funny, poignant, the stuff of high drama -- especially when the girl makes her escape.

Offside scarcely puts one foot wrong, except for a dark, final-act revelation that merits greater development. But the last-minute twist manages to set up a stunner of an end scene -- one of the young girls moving into a riotous crowd, a patriotic song rising up around her. Sure, the girls want the chance to play the yob, they love soccer -- but what truly motivates their offside invasion seems to be a desire to participate in this convulsive celebration of cultural pride, to take a proud place in a society that has sought to deny them, and to enter on the world stage in fair competition.

Although the film's concluding song would seem to push the scene into treacle, Panahi is cloaking his subversion in feel-good camouflage. The song that billows around the girl is not the current Iranian anthem, nor does it revere the revolution or the mullahs -- it's a patriotic paean that celebrates Iran's arts and culture, and allegedly the song that helped prompt security forces to fire on young Iranians at the ill-fated Iran-Japan game. "Ey Iran" turns the last scene into a perfect convergence of Panahi's paradoxes -- a bright future coupled to a bittersweet past, critique married to idealism, and the escape of one linked to liberation for all.

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