Three years after winning the Cannes Jury Prize for his tense drama CRIMSON GOLD (2003), acclaimed Iranian director Jafar Panahi returned to the themes of his THE CIRCLE (2000) with another extraordinarily frank look at the difficulties facing Iranian women in a strict fundamentalist society. While lighter in tone and at times even funny, Panahi's drama about young women forbidden to attend a soccer match is nevertheless tough to shake.
It opens with an elderly man frantically searching for his daughter on buses bound for the Tehran stadium. Iran's team is about to face off in a crucial match against Bahrain; if they win, Iran will go to Germany to compete in the 2006 World Cup. The father is desperate because he knows his daughter is a soccer fanatic who skipped out of school early and is now on her way to see this momentous game live something strictly forbidden to Iranian women on the theory that the stadium atmosphere is too "masculine." Men curse, shout and blow off steam during soccer matches, and a woman exposed to such behavior would be irreparably corrupted. Unbeknownst to the other passengers, there is a young woman (Sima Mobarak-Shahi) aboard, using the preferred strategy of women bold enough to risk arrest for the chance to see their favorite sport live: She's disguised herself as a boy, face painted with the red, green and white of the Iranian flag, hair tucked under her cap and body concealed beneath baggy masculine clothes. At the stadium, she buys an exorbitantly overpriced ticket from a scalper who knows she's not really a he, but doesn't make it past the guards at the front gate who are frisking ticket holders. When she tries to escape, she's captured by a soldier and taken to a makeshift holding pen outside one of the upper terraces, where other unlucky female fans are awaiting arrest by the vice squad. Well within earshot of the game, they beg the soldiers to let them watch or at least tell them what's happening. But the soldiers have a lot to lose if they're caught granting special privileges to miscreants; none is particularly happy about serving particularly on this particular detail and none is willing to risk having his mandatory conscription extended by breaking the law for sassy, strong-minded women who just want to watch a little football.
Poignant and sometimes downright hilarious, much of the film unfolds in the small area outside the arena an "offside" penalty box for women who just won't behave. But Panahi widens his viewpoint through a structure similar to the one used in THE CIRCLE, in which the story is passed from one character to another. By never settling on one particular figure, Panahi can show how enforcing arbitrary and repressive measures affects the soldiers as well as the women. And what women: one particular fan is a tough-talking, head-butting cookie with a cigarette and an attitude rarely seen in post-revolution Iranian movies. leave a comment --Ken Fox