Jun 13, 2007 at 12:00 am

Sometimes the best foreign directors are the ones least seen within their own borders. In that regard Iran's Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon) is in the company of artists like Sergei Eisenstein and Yimou Zhang, whose films were celebrated worldwide, but faced the censor's scissors from their own repressive governments. If Panahi isn't quite in that elite league as a filmmaker, his films do have an immediacy that grabs outside audiences, and offers an irresistible peek into an alien culture. Offside is kind of like a postcard from prison, and, though conditions are severe, the inmates are in good spirits and appear to be making the most of their bad situation.

The action centers around a World Cup qualifying match between Iran and Bahrain at Tehran's Azadi stadium, where a half-dozen young girls attempt to join in on the nationalistic sporting fever inside. Women are forbidden from attending such sporting events there, but these ladies risk much — not just inflated scalper prices but imprisonment — just to root for their side. A group of bored soldiers (whose comically long hat bills give them the appearance of Irani Gomer Pyles) prevent them from such simple soccer joys. These troops know how ridiculously sexist the rules are, but they follow orders with halfhearted professionalism, and round the girls into a makeshift holding pen before turning them over to the vice squad.

Though these gals are tough and determined, they are banned because their delicate female ears might overhear foul language, or, as a soldier warns, read it on the bathroom stall. The story unfolds in an amusingly chaotic fashion, with a tone somewhere between documentary realism and broad sitcom slapstick. The film is a satire, though subtleties of Iranian street life will be lost on Western audiences — and it's sometimes difficult to see how such institutional insanity can be funny.

Offside kicks off the summer film series at the Detroit Film Theatre, inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237. It shows at 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 14; 7 and 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 16; and 4 and 7 p.m. on Sunday, June 17.

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].