Offside (Persian)

For Middle Eastern filmmakers, few things are more ripe for cinematic treatment than the status of women in their part of the world. In this decade alone we’ve seen Iranian women endure life in “The Circle” and Taliban-ruled Afghan women contemplate suicide in “Kandahar.” We’ve seen not one but two films (“Osama” and “Baran”) about young girls forced to dress like boys in order to find work. These tend to be somber films, obviously.

Now we come to “Offside,” from “The Circle” writer/director Jafar Panahi, and it’s the first film I’m aware of to treat the subject lightheartedly. It seems that under Iran’s strict Sharia law, women are not permitted to attend men’s sporting events. But in “Offside,” a handful of plucky gals try it anyway, disguising themselves as best they can so they can get into Tehran’s 100,000-seat soccer stadium for the World Cup qualifying match against Bahrain. The game — which really happened, by the way, in June 2005 — is far too important to stay home and watch it on TV.

The young women don’t get very far, though. There’s a strong military presence on duty, patting everyone down at the gates (to check for weapons, presumably, not breasts), and that’s where they get caught. Five offenders are herded into a holding area, five women who were strangers and who are now minor-league criminals together.

Except that no one’s taking it very seriously. The holding area is just a waist-high gate, the kind used to keep lines orderly at amusement parks, and the barely effectual soldiers in charge of guarding them are grumpy at being given such a boring task. The soldiers are about the same age as the girls, actually, fulfilling their obligations to the military and eager to get back to their regular lives.

The girls are being kept there until the vice squad can show up to take them downtown, or whatever; no one seems to think the punishment is going to be very severe, though a couple of the girls freak out a little over what their fathers will think. In the meantime, they pester the guards for game updates, talk amongst themselves, and occasionally try to escape.

It’s in bits and pieces that we come to understand the reasoning behind the no-girls-allowed rule. Early on, a ticket seller tells one of the women, “I’m not letting you go into a crowd full of men. I’m no bastard! You could be my sister!” What is he afraid will happen? Later we discover the reason: Men tend to curse and swear in a setting such as this, and such behavior is unfit for female ears. So in order to protect the sanctity of womanhood, women must be smothered by oppressive, absurd laws.

The film laughs at the absurdity of banning women from stadiums and tells a slight, droll story in the process. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was banned in Iran (as were Panahi’s previous, more polemic films), and that overreaction seems like a good enough reason all by itself to support the film. It’s not an “important” movie, maybe, but it’s a pleasant and smart one.

B (1 hr., 27 min.; Persian with subtitles; PG, scattered profanity.)