' Cinema Romantico: Offside

Monday, February 21, 2011

Offside

Upon Iran scoring a goal to take a 1-0 lead in a soccer match to determine whether or not they will qualify for the 2006 World Cup, a group of five Iranian females, overcome with joy, scream and jump around and huddle together and cheer: "What does Iran do?! It riddles you with goals!" The strange, bittersweet irony here is that these five females are not actually watching the game but listening to it just outside the stadium after having been detained by the Iranian army for attempting to sneak into the game since women are not allowed to watch sporting events with men. Yet here these women are, one of them locked up in handcuffs, shouting just as wildly as the male prison guards.

The director of "Offside" (2007) is Jafar Panahi who in December of last year was sentenced to six years in prison for "carrying out propaganda against the system" and so it was time for this film, which had been wandering in the wilderness of my Netflix queue for the last year, to get bumped up to the top spot. The majority of the film was shot during the actual 2005 Iran-Bahrain contest that is its main plot point and to get the film made Pahani submitted a script to Iranian authorities about a group of men going to the match and upon that script's approval setting about to make his actual film, a film that would then be banned in his country.


It is very much in the style of Italian Neo-Realism - Iranian Neo-Realism, perhaps? A nameless girl (Sima Mobarak-Shahi) dressed up as a boy is on a bus filled with chanting, flag-waving guys and one of the guys can tell she's a girl and advises it's unlikely she'll get in but that he'll help her any way he can and she dismisses this offer because she says she doesn't need his assistance. Another film - maybe any other film ever - might have teamed these two up for the rest of its running time but "Offside" moves this guy out of the picture immediately. She really doesn't need his assistance. Not that she makes it into the game, because she doesn't. She is nabbed by a guard and taken to a makeshift prison that is really just a cordoned off area protected by a few more soldiers at the top reaches of the stadium.

There are several other nameless girls here who tried to sneak in and were thwarted. One girl debates the merits of this whole men-and-women-can't-mix-in-the-stadium law. One girl needs to use the restroom which becomes a whole separate sideshow. Interestingly this initial nameless girl we are introduced to and who we sense is the film's protagonist just blends in once arriving in the pen. It's an All In This Together kinda thing. Even the soldiers, the poor soldiers, seem to agree the ban against women in the stadium is archaic but, nonetheless, have a job to see to in order to avoid the wrath of punishment. If they had it their way they would be watching the game and not dealing with prisoners.

Eventually a bus will arrive and everyone will pile on so the guards can escort the girls to the Chief and all the people aboard find themselves listening breathlessly via radio as the final seconds tick away and their country qualifies for the World Cup. And once they have, celebrations erupt, the bus becomes snared in traffic and first the guards and then the girls are pulled out into the street where everyone is singing and dancing and lighting firecrackers and, for a little while at least, nothing else much matters.

I think it's safe to assume Panahi being jailed is far beyond heinous and I, like everyone else, hope he is released tomorrow but what if his government continues its dumbass stance and in 2014 Panahi remains behind bars and his country once again qualifies for the World Cup? Can't you imagine him cheering at the scoring of a crucial goal and lighting firecrackers in its aftermath despite his circumstances? As Panahi himself has said, "I make films, first, for Iranians."

A.O. Scott of the esteemed New York Times wrote that the film "made clear that such a victory, like the outcome of any other sporting event, is unlikely to really change anything." Sure. But it also makes clear that such a victory, like the outcome of any other sporting event, still counts for a whole big bunch of something.

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