Not to overstate the obvious, or necessarily promote criticism that only contends in meaningless dialectics between high and low art, but, to put it bluntly, if given the choice between Jafar Panahi‘s eloquent, invigorating, tightly paced, and endlessly enjoyable “Offside” and the current box office mega-attraction “300” (titled, evidently, for the amount of brain cells you will lose by watching it), and you choose the latter, no amount of community service can save your soul. Why bother comparing a delicate yet trenchant social allegory about young Iranian female soccer fans with a massive, dunderheaded “epic” about ancient Sparta warding off legions of evil Persians tinted with all the lovely colors of an oil slick? Well, not only does “Offside”‘s very contemporary look at Iranian youth culture act as a nuanced corrective to Zack Snyder‘s conveniently “unintentional” Iran invasion propaganda (known before the mid-Thirties as, you guessed it, Persia) but also both films are literal calls to action — “Offside” for young women to assert their independence in a hideously patriarchal society that’s ever so slowly evolving due to burgeoning youth activism; “300” for Americans to stomp, slice, and hack their way through anything, or anybody, of a different color. The choice should be simple.
Whine all you want about “300” just being, like, “escapism”; “Offside” is no calcified art object, but a fully engaged, life-affirming drama that is equal parts comedy, political metaphor, and suspense film in its depiction of a group of teenage girls who dress up as boys to get into an important professional soccer match, from where they are banned because of national gender restrictions. As the holding pen for the caught “offenders” grows, we come to know each of the girls individually. Most charismatic is the tough, supremely independent, and boyish Shayesteh Irani, whose scowl intimidates the clueless male guards as they try and keep them from watching the game, all the while trying to view it as well. It’s to Panahi’s credit that the guards are never painted as villains, but simply as kids themselves, unquestioning pawns in a firmly entrenched, sexist system. There is no black and white in “Offside,” just the desire for change — reflected in an idea as seemingly innocuous as youngsters trying to express their national identity through sport fanaticism.
One of world cinema’s treasures, Jafar Panahi has been steadily accruing a stunning body of work over the past decade. What all of his films have in common — from the poignant meta-tricks of “The Mirror” to the devastating roundelay of women on the run from the law in “The Circle” to, perhaps his greatest work, “Crimson Gold,” which surveyed the landscape of Tehran through the eyes of a fringe-dwelling pizza man — is a mix of breathless pacing and narrative minimalism; Panahi’s characters are thrust into circumstances that make them observers of the schematics of present-day Iranian society, visualized by the filmmaker in fluid, freeform long takes that prize human agility over cinema pyrotechnics. “Offside” further realizes this great artist’s vision of his ever-changing, troubled political present — one that American audiences really need to see right now.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor at the Criterion Collection.]