In Iran, women are not permitted to attend men's sporting events, apparently to "protect" them from all the cursing and foul language they might hear emanating from the male fans (so since men can`t restrain or behave themselves, women are forced to suffer. Go figure.). "Offside" tells the tale of a half dozen or so young women who, dressed like men, attempt to sneak into the high-stakes match between Iran and Bahrain that, in 2005, qualified Iran to go to the World Cup (the movie was actually filmed in large part during that game).
"Offside" is a slice-of-life comedy that will remind you of all those great humanistic films ("The Shop on Main Street," "Loves of a Blonde," "Closely Watched Trains" etc.) that flowed out of Communist Czechoslovakia as part of the "Prague Miracle" in the mid 1960's. As with many of those works, "Offside" is more concerned with observing life than with devising any kind of elaborately contrived fictional narrative. Indeed, it is the simplicity of the setup and the naturalism of the style that make the movie so effective.
Once their ruse is discovered, the girls are corralled into a small pen right outside the stadium where they can hear the raucous cheering emanating from the game inside. Stuck where they are, all they can do is plead with the security guards to let them go in, guards who are basically bumbling, good-natured lads who are compelled to do their duty as a part of their compulsory military service. Even most of the men going into the stadium don't seem particularly perturbed at the thought of these women being allowed in. Still the prohibition persists. Yet, how can one not be impressed by the very real courage and spunk displayed by these women as they go up against a system that continues to enforce such a ridiculously regressive and archaic restriction? And, yet, the purpose of these women is not to rally behind a cause or to make a "point." They are simply obsessed fans with a burning desire to watch a soccer game and, like all the men in the country, cheer on their team.
It's hard to tell just how much of the dialogue is scripted and how much of it is extemporaneous, but, in either case, the actors, with their marvelously expressive faces, do a magnificent job making each moment seem utterly real and convincing. Mohammad Kheir-abadi and Shayesteh Irani are notable standouts in a uniformly excellent cast. The structure of the film is also very loose and freeform, as writer/director Jafar Panahi and co-writer Shadmehr Rastin focus for a few brief moments on one or two of the characters, then move smoothly and effortlessly onto others. With this documentary-type approach, we come to feel as if we are witnessing an actual event unfolding in "real time." Very often, it's quite easy for us to forget we're actually watching a movie.
It was a very smart move on the part of the filmmakers to include so much good-natured humor in the film (it's what the Czech filmmakers did as well), the better to point up the utter absurdity of the situation and broaden the appeal of the film for audiences both domestic and foreign. "Offside" is obviously a cry for justice, but it is one that is made all the more effective by its refusal to make of its story a heavy-breathing tragedy. Instead, it realizes that nothing breaks down social barriers quite as efficiently as humor and an appeal to the audience's common humanity. And isn't that what true art is supposed to be all about?
In its own quiet, understated way, "Offside" is one of the great, under-appreciated gems of 2007.