Throughout his career, director Jafar Panahi has relied on long, engaging setpieces in which people ping off one another in everyday conversations fraught with unexpected tension. Typically, these take place in confined spaces, and in Panahi's latest, Offside, the constriction is almost perverse. Offside takes place at Tehran's biggest soccer stadium, during a 2006 World Cup qualifying match between the Iranian national team and Bahrain. But because the movie is about a group of women who tried—and failed—to disguise their gender and sneak into the game, it rarely shows any soccer action, or any part of the stadium outside of a small holding pen, where these women wait to be bussed off to jail.
Panahi doesn't exactly explore the space with dynamic camerawork, but he doesn't just point and shoot, either. What might've come off as stage-bound, like a didactic one-act play, instead contains the energy and tension of a major sporting event, as Panahi moves the camera between the women and their jailers, as though following a series of scoring rallies. With nothing to lose, the women rage against the absurd situation, while the men try in vain to silence them. And while Panahi's criticism of his country's gender politics is undisguised, so is his faith in Iranian women's ability to make their own way, through persuasion and righteousness.
Offside starts and ends on a bus, and it contains a couple of sequences that roam a little, including one masterful setpiece in which a guard has to escort one of the women to a men's bathroom, and another that shows a prisoner escaping to catch a few precious seconds of the match. Mostly, though, Panahi uses the promise of soccer as a significant offscreen presence. The game stands for what his people might be able to enjoy together, if they could stand to relax their social restrictions for a few hours. Offside is funny, angry, passionate, and surprisingly patriotic, and it builds to an ending that feels hopeful but not phony. It's a sports film unlike any other, and a political film that makes the personal profound.