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Panahi Scores with Lighthearted Populist Allegory

Director Jafar Panahi has never been afraid to test the patience of censors in his native Iran, a rigid theocracy in which even the slightest offenses may carry weighty punishments. His latest documentary-style feature, Offside, is hardly as sobering as 2000ís The Circle, in which he chronicled the plight of women struggling to thrive in a society dominated by institutionalized sexism. Yet it is no less daring, as Panahi focuses on six young women desperate to attend the Iranian national soccer teamís 2005 World Cup qualifier against Bahrain.

Theyíre not allowed the privilege, of course -- admission to menís sporting events is reserved exclusively for men, so they can be loudly profane without corrupting the ladies -- but that doesnít stop several women in drag from trying to crash the party.

Despite their best efforts, they donít make it past the gates. Panahiís is the rare sports film in which the on-field action is never seen, only described in unsophisticated detail by the boy soldiers charged with enforcing the stadiumís gender code. The crowdís wild cheering can be heard in the distance, but footage of Iranís victory is noticeably absent.

Meanwhile, the young women wait outside in frustration and disgust, remanded to a makeshift holding pen as the action rages inside. During one of the filmís funniest sequences, one of the detainees explains that she needs to use the rest room -- even though the bathrooms in Tehranís Azadi Stadium are designed only for men. Her wish is granted, but only after she agrees to don a mask, lest her eyes be scarred by sight of the opposite sex.

Panahi used nonprofessional actors, filmed on the sly as the actual game unfolded, and the result is a humorous but pointed critique of a culture rooted in misogyny. Offside may be more lighthearted than his previous work, but that hardly compromises the message. Yet even the jailers who keep the women at bay are depicted in a sympathetic light; they are boys assigned a task they donít understand, and though they try to encourage their charges with crude play-by-play and genuine empathy, rules are rules and must be followed -- or else.

Offside dares to question those rules, and in doing so illuminates the generation gap between those who uphold Iranís archaic policies of gender discrimination and younger, more progressive Iranians who are forced to put up with them. Panahi offers hope for a brighter, more liberal future, but as his film makes clear, there is much work to be done in the present. This is a comedy, not a polemic, but there is a reason that Offside, like all of Panahiís movies, is banned in Iran.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars