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'Offside' scores

Iranian film is exuberant, subversive, and a hoot, to boot

Greatness is a word often associated with Iranian cinema. But fun? Practically never.

Jafar Panahi's exuberant and subversive "Offside," however, scores on both points.

The director of such harrowing masterworks as "The Circle" and "Crimson Gold" lightens up with this absurdist story of a gaggle of teenage girls who get busted trying to sneak into Tehran's males-only soccer stadium to watch a World Cup qualifying game against Bahrain.

Foul-mouthed, sassy and quite delightfully sports-crazed, these chicks (as they're called by all the men who struggle to control them, at least in the subtitles) are a blast to watch as they wheedle, connive and confront to get their way. They're also, of course, representative of Iranians as a whole who are fed up with their Islamic theocracy's heavy-handed attempts to dictate behavior.

Panahi effortlessly evokes fear and stirs up barbed political discussions that sound utterly natural in the charged atmosphere of fan hysteria and uniting national pride. Yet "Offside" is, for the most part, slyly amusing.

And it's always utterly realistic. The actors, all amateurs, tickle us with their enthusiasm and confused earnestness, but it's their spontaneity above all that wins the day. Iranian films are also well-known for their humanism, but "Offside" is the first one about which I can honestly say I completely related to it without having to make mental adjustments for cultural differences.

Except for all those gender segregation rules, maybe. But another great thing about "Offside" is the way in which it pretty much ignores them, too, and diligently goes about the business of letting boys and girls really get to know each other.

The females, most of whom get nailed before even entering the stadium, are kept in an ad hoc pen of crowd-control barriers, tantalizingly close to one of the upper-deck entrances. The soldiers guarding them are draftees from various parts of the country, and these young men are no happier than their prisoners about not getting to see the big game. The guys are generally more scared, too; any screwup and they'll be harshly punished. Plus, these Tehrani girls, even in their national flag face paint and "guy" get-ups that don't fool anybody, sure can mess with a country boy's mind.

While as character-based as they come, "Offside" also boasts superb visuals and canny sound design. As in his earlier dramas, Panahi displays a brilliant, offhand knack for both long stretches of continuous movement and stuck-in-idle entrapment - and sometimes, amazingly, combines both dynamics in the same shot. Most everything the characters really care about (which boils down to, basically, the score) is imparted by another person or media, making the live experience all crave frustratingly unattainable.

And when one of the girls has to urinate, well, I don't think a nuttier or more suspenseful sequence has ever been filmed in a public restroom. Bizarre as it is, you believe each second of it, just like everything else in "Offside."

While it barely even qualifies as a sports movie, "Offside" ends up as one of the most sportsmanlike movies ever made. The ladies and their guards develop mutual respect and make chivalrous little expressions of appreciation while still, metaphorically speaking, sticking to their required sides of the fence. And I truly can't think of any other film that captures the love of the game more . . . or, to be more accurate, loving the idea of it. *

Produced by Jafar Panahi, directed by Jafar Panahi, written by Jafar Panahi, Shadmehr Rastin, music by Yuval Barazani, Korosh Bozorgpour, distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.