Teenage girls, all ardent soccer fans, masquerade as boys to crash the Iran-Bahrain game at Tehran stadium in the hilariously offbeat "Offside." In his most accessible and spontaneous picture, ranking Iranian helmer Jafar Panahi reveals unsuspected comic gifts barely visible in his dramatic festival winners "The White Balloon," "The Circle" and "Crimson Gold."

Teenage girls, all ardent soccer fans, masquerade as boys to crash the Iran-Bahrain game at Tehran stadium in the hilariously offbeat “Offside.” In his most accessible and spontaneous picture, ranking Iranian helmer Jafar Panahi reveals unsuspected comic gifts barely visible in his dramatic festival winners “The White Balloon,” “The Circle” and “Crimson Gold.” Providing continuity is the strong underlying social theme of mistreated femmes deprived of basic rights — here, the right to root for their team. After bowing in Berlin competition, this tightly paced pic should prove a highly sellable item for Celluloid Dreams and widen Panahi’s audience base considerably.

Even as it cleverly spotlights the absurdity of Iran’s strict segregation policies toward the female sex, “Offside” also describes a surprisingly rebellious world of young people who are not ready to buy into their country’s imposed social values. Apart from its filmic merits, pic should have a role to play abroad in shining a light on some little-known facets of Iranian society. It has not yet been cleared for release in Iran.

Camera follows a girl riding to the stadium with a rowdy busload of flag-waving roughnecks. Though wearing boy’s clothing, a military cap and warpaint on her face in the national team colors, she is easily spotted. Yet the excited fans barely notice her. Nor is she the only femme trying to get into the game, as one boy casually points out two more girls on another bus to his companion.

It is immediately clear that women are not allowed into soccer matches, which are all-male events, and that those who ignore the edict are breaking the law and will be punished. But with each new challenge the girl faces, the pic veers away from drama through the sheer absurdity of the situation and churns up a laugh. Her main hurdle is getting past a police checkpoint, where each fan is patted down. She watches the techniques used by more experienced gate-crashers, like pretending to be blind, but at the last moment her courage fails and she’s caught.

Taken to a holding pen on the upper deck of the stadium just out of sight of the big game, she joins other girls who have been arrested. Yet, as the young soldiers assigned to guard them know, many others have slipped inside. The uptight young officer in charge (Safar Samandar) is a farm boy roundly mocked by the city girls; another provincial soldier (Mohamad Kheirabadi), though, is willing to watch the game through an opening and recount the plays to the impatient girls. The droll tale hits a high point when one girl (Aida Sadeghi) insists on going to the bathroom, and the dismayed soldier forced to accompany her to the men’s room makes her wear a poster on her face to keep from being recognized.

In a more relaxed final act, the captured girls are joined by a boy arrested for sneaking in firecrackers and put on a bus bound for jail. This quieter moment gives Panahi a chance to reveal hidden aspects of his characters.

Ensemble acting by the non-pro cast relies on each girl embodying a different type, from the gentle schoolgirl doing something naughty to the masculine toughie who looks and talks like a boy. Each is so comically down-to-earth she effortlessly grabs audience sympathy. The two main soldiers work as sympathetically-viewed counterpoints who, try as they might, are unable to logically defend the male supremacist laws of their country.

Film’s great virtue is its spontaneity, very different from the careful control of the director’s earlier work, but very much in synch with the hypercharged stadium atmosphere. Though it doesn’t hurt the picture, soccer buffs may be disappointed that none of the game is shown. Mahmoud Kalari’s loose, handheld camerawork with its constantly roving lens captures the chaos amusingly. Panahi’s own editing is fast and tense.

Offside

Iran

Production

Produced, directed, edited by Jafar Panahi. (International sales: Celluloid Dreams, Paris.) Screenplay, Panahi, Shadmehr Rastin.

Crew

Camera (color), Mahmoud Kalari; art director, Iraj Raminfar; sound (DTS), Nezamodin Kiaee. Reviewed at Fajr Film Festival, Jan. 25, 2006. (Also in Berlin Film Festival --- competing.) Running time: 92 MIN.

With

Sima Mobarakshai, Safar Samandar, Shayesteh Irani, Mohamad Kheirabadi, Aida Sadeghi, Golnaz Farmani, Mahnnaz Zabihi.

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