In marketing a foreign film about girls and soccer, Sony Pictures Classics bends like Beckham what is actually calm and thoughtful neorealism. This is not a “smart comedy illustrating the fight for women's rights in Iran," as the promotional material says (or even in New Jersey, as demonstrated in Gracie
, that other girls soccer film out now). It’s way better than that, whatever that is. This is Iranian cinema at its most accessible: a bit slow even in its 92 minutes, with more environment than story, but deeply immersive and thought-provoking, and quite often funny. The setting is Tehran, at the qualifying match for the 2005 World Cup, in a stadium where women are not allowed. Yet that doesn’t mean women aren’t there. Panahi’s camera follows one girl, disguised as a man, on a minibus thronged by hooligans, through a gauntlet of soldiers and checkpoints, and into the path of a scalper who won’t sell her a ticket at first because he perceives that she's a woman – but then agrees to do it if she pays more. Once inside the grounds, we discover a makeshift holding pen of such girls captured – incorrigible female soccer freaks disguised by baggy pants and, in one case, a soldier’s uniform. “What devil got into you Tehran girls?” demands the soldier in charge (Safar Samandar) of the intractable young women, who mouth off and trash-talk his beloved soccer superstar and countryman Khodada Azizi. Unable to explain why women shouldn’t be allowed into a stadium to see people kicking a ball around, the soldiers defend this risible policy to the point of futility. There’s a funny bit involving a trip to the bathroom, and in one lively moment the prisoners act out the game as commented by a soldier with a view of the action. This is as close as the prisoners – or the audience – get to witnessing an actual soccer game. Co-writer and director Panahi (The White Balloon
) strikes a perfect balance between farce and absurdist satire, but the film is much more low-key than its trailer suggests, and lurking at its margins is the specter of honor killings. (“I hope I find her before they do,” says a father, of his daughter’s brothers. “They’ll kill her.”) But its ruminations on secular Iranian nationalism are effectively couched within the characters, and the film, which won the Berlin Film Festival’s Silver Bear but is banned in Iran, has a refreshing slyness to it, as if it’s getting away with something too.