Ugly face of the beautiful game

A quiet, profound Iranian comedy shows the World Cup in a new light. By Ryan Gilbey

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Iranian film-makers routinely find themselves banned or thwarted, but, even by this standard, Jafar Panahi has had it tough. His lyrical 1995 debut, The White Balloon, was a contender for an Oscar until his government withdrew it in protest at a US Congress decision to plough $20m into covert operations against Iran. Six years later, he was on his way from Hong Kong to Buenos Aires. During a stopover at JFK Airport in New York, he was shackled and held in cells for 12 hours for refusing to be fingerprinted and photographed. Any sane person must question the logic, particularly as Ron Howard and Michael Bay are free to go about their business unimpeded.

Panahi's latest film, Offside, has been banned in Iran, like his previous two - Crimson Gold (2003), a thriller about a pizza deliveryman's slide into crime, and The Circle (2000), about women struggling in a sexist society. But if he's feeling despondent, it doesn't show. Offside is energised by freewheeling camera-work, zesty performances and an impish spirit that keeps the action teetering on the brink of screwball.

Akram (Golnaz Farmani) is easy to spot on the supporters' bus heading for the World Cup qualifying match at Tehran stadium in 2005. She's sitting with the peak of her cap pulled down as the others chant, "Long live Iran! Down with Bahrain!" The colours of the Iranian flag are daubed on her cheeks like war paint. And she's the only female. Arriving at the stadium, Akram spots others determined to evade the ban on women at soccer matches. One has borrowed a blind man's glasses and white stick; another is dressed as a soldier.

Men become giddy when they encounter these women in disguise. One fan has an attack of chivalry: "I'll help you if there's any trouble," he says breathlessly. "Stop coming the hero," snorts Akram. When she tries to buy a black-market ticket, she is rebuffed by the tout. "I won't let you go into a crowd of men," he declares, as you struggle to get your head around the concept of a ticket tout with principles. Once Akram is caught by the authorities, she is herded into a holding pen with four similar offenders. They're close enough to hear the match: the chaotic whistles, cheers and drumming of the unseen fans keep erupting throughout the film, creating a soundtrack comically out of sync with the images.

Much of the pleasure in Offside arises from the disparity in scale between the status quo (100,000 men enjoying a football match) and the threats to it (five young women, their hair tucked under hats). Like the bureaucrats in a Dario Fo farce or a Monty Python sketch, the guards find their authority eroded by the absurd lengths to which they go to uphold it.

Panahi draws attention to the essential pettiness of the situation early on. After Akram has been apprehended at the turnstiles, she is escorted up a long flight of steps that curves around the stadium and leads off into the yawning blue sky. Panahi, who also edited and co-wrote the film, deflates the grandeur of the shot by cutting to a banal exchange between Akram and her escort. The soldier won't let her ring her parents, but wants to borrow her phone to call his girlfriend. She obliges. Then his girlfriend calls back, and Akram answers. In scenes like this, Panahi heeds a lesson ignored by more overtly political film-makers. Real life, with its humdrum misunderstandings, intrudes even on moments of grave significance.

The tug-of-war between the resonant and the mundane preoccupies Panahi far more than soccer (Offside dodges the curse of football films by neglecting to show so much as a dribble). He has made an adventure about innocent people trying to outwit their oppressors, but the one woman who does escape returns willingly at half-time. "We've got no defence," she reports. "Forget Germany."

As it transpires, she's wrong. And anyone who watches Iran in the World Cup, and also sees Offside, may find it difficult not to imagine the persecuted female fans, just out of view, just off-camera. With this quiet, profound film, Panahi shows that divisions between the personal and political are as vulnerable as a striker's metatarsal.

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