It must have been exactly what conservative Saudis feared would happen: Let a woman like Haifaa Al-Mansour direct a movie (and the first movie ever shot in Saudi Arabia at that), and a few years later she’ll be back directing another. Only this time, there’ll be actual cinemas in the Kingdom that can show it. Let a 10-year-old girl like Wadjda, the eponymous heroine of Al-Mansour’s delightful 2012 debut, covet a bicycle, and next thing you know, women will be driving. In cars. Progress happens slowly, in little ticks and tocks of change. And if Al-Mansour’s gently galvanizing fourth film The Perfect Candidate, knows that a little too well to deliver a truly full-throated, (wo)man-the-ramparts rallying cry, it’s still going to piss off all the right people — for which, a million times, brava.
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Given women an inch, they’ll take a mile, and then they’ll pave it. The Perfect Candidate opens with Dr Maryam Alsafan (an appealing Mila Al Zahrani) driving her car — something Saudi women have only been allowed to do since 2018 — up to the flooded, broken driveway of the local clinic where she works. The impassable approach to the clinic’s entrance, which traps ambulance wheels in sinking mud, and treks filth into the corridors in the treads of gurneys, is the subject of Maryam’s tenacious focus. In between treating her patients, some of whom need cajoling or tricking before they’ll even let a female doctor touch them, she is on the phone to local politicians trying to get them to fix the road. They brush her off.
At home, things are no more dynamic. Maryam, her professional photographer sister Selma (Dhay) and younger sister Sara (Nora Al Awad) live with their father Abdulaziz (Khalid Abdulraheem). He is an oud player and wedding musician who dreams of gaining respect as a real artist, and who is a little distracted from his fatherly duties by grief over the recent loss of his singer wife. His daughters, too, are mourning their unconventional mother; the slightly bohemian edge to Maryam’s parentage, and the sense that the family has been on the fringe of respectability because of it, is an interesting note when parents in this sort of drama are usually shown to represent traditional, conservative, patriarchal values.
But then, Al-Mansour’s focus is unusual anyway: The Perfect Candidate is as much about how it feels to have professional and personal ambition in a society that would suppress those instincts under rigidly imposed codes of female behavior and propriety as it is an investigation of those codes. And it is Al-Mansour’s familiarity with this world — and this mindset — that allows her to avoid broad generalizations, and to give the details of these customs and traditions an offhand, lived-in feel. (One can only marvel at the ambition and determination she herself must have to get her Saudi films made.) The Perfect Candidate is fresh and hopeful not just because of the series of rather schematic triumphs that its narrative describes, but because it is a specific portrait. In some ways, Maryam is representative of Saudi womanhood at large, but mostly, she’s just herself.
It is Maryam’s wish, for example, to fly to Dubai in hopes of landing a job interview for a Riyadh hospital position that sets the plot in motion. Needing a renewal of her male guardian’s travel permit and knowing her father is away touring with his band, she goes to visit a cousin in local government who might be able to help — at which point she discovers that it’s only through registering as a candidate in the municipal election that she will get to see him at all.
The Dubai trip falls through; the clinic’s access road remains nightmarishly unusable; and Maryam already has the paperwork filed. Her running for office, despite the dismay of her sisters, becomes a no-brainer. But it’s Maryam’s inner journey, from self-declared, single-issue nuisance candidate — she just wants her road fixed — to competent, resourceful political operator who wants to prove it can be done, that is the most compelling, and strangely moving aspect of Al-Mansour’s film.
Despite the obstacles and humiliations Maryam faces, there is an ease and a fluidity to Al-Mansour’s storytelling that keeps the film in an approachable, oddly cheerful register. There are pointed elements: After an abaya fashion show, thrown as a fundraiser for Maryam’s candidacy, the glamorously dressed, chattering attendees line up to thank her, while providing excuse after excuse for why they will not, or cannot vote for her. And there’s a neat twist in that it’s Sara, the youngest sister — whom we might expect to be the most rebellious — who is actually the most conservative and scandal-averse of the three young women.
Mostly, though, Al-Mansour’s screenplay hits the beats of the underdog story with rhythmic accuracy, and her clean-lined, straightforward filmmaking style, as well as the steady underplaying of her actresses, is useful in selling the more soapy turns. Indeed, there’s something refreshing about Al Mansour’s occasional embrace of melodrama. That the form, usually the domain of immaculately coiffed white ladies drawn in anguished close-ups, is here being applied to a young Muslim Saudi — sometimes in a niqab, sometimes in a hijab — is a simple little coup for the relatable representation of an often cinematically invisible population. The Perfect Candidate doesn’t burn the veil, but it does lift it briefly, allowing us a glimpse of Saudi womanhood that is idiosyncratic and individual — in short, as we very rarely see it.
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