The Jerusalem Post
An extraordinary story of a Saudi Arabian woman
Most of us know relatively little about the reality of life in Saudi Arabia and in recent years a talented female director, Haifaa Al-Mansour, has given us a glimpse into it through her movies. Her latest film, The Perfect Candidate, which opens throughout Israel on Thursday, is a fascinating look at how changes in women’s rights are beginning to take place.
Al-Mansour burst onto the international cinema scene in 2012 with Wadjda, a movie about a young girl who enters a Koran competition in order to buy herself a bike – something no one really thinks a girl ought to have – with her winnings. It was an upbeat story of a sweet but rebellious girl that may sound formulaic but which showcased an amazingly winning performance by Waad Mohammed in the title role and was absolutely wonderful. It was similar in tone and theme to Whale Rider, the story of a New Zealand girl smashing the taboos of Maori culture.
The Perfect Candidate is a look at what might happen to a girl like Wadjda when she grows up and still has to deal with the same logic-defying laws that oppress women. But, like Wadjda, it avoids preachiness and looks at the challenges of being a non-conformist. The movie was made in 2019, not long after Saudi women were allowed to drive and Maryam is often shown behind the wheel. This is a period when the rules are changing in Saudi Arabia and several of the other onerous, misogynistic laws depicted in the film have been eliminated since the film was shot.
The movie tells the story of Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani), a doctor who works in a clinic in a small hospital. Unmarried, she is law abiding, wearing a niqab when it is required and observing fasts. She lives with her sisters and her father, a widowed musician who is often on the road and unreachable, which gives Maryam a certain freedom at home. She faces all kinds of discrimination at work, exemplified in an early scene where an older man refuses to be treated by her, even though she is fully veiled, cursing the idea of female doctors and saying he would rather be taken care of by a male nurse.
A road that leads to the hospital is unpaved and floods often, due to a burst pipe, making it impossible for ambulances to pull up to the entrance and forcing orderlies to carry stretchers and wheelchairs through knee-deep mud. Her requests to the hospital administration that the road be repaired are ignored, as are her pleas to local bureaucrats and she ultimately decides that the only way for her to make a change is to run for the local city council, which is permitted for a woman but frowned upon by conservatives.
Most of the film follows the obstacles that she faces during her campaign, such as the fact that female candidates are not generally permitted to address male audiences, a pretty big drawback in politics. It also follows her struggle to renew her travel document so she can travel to a conference in Dubai, which she hopes will allow her the opportunity to work abroad or to be transferred to an urban hospital where she would be treated better. The problem is, she needs her father’s permission to renew the document and he is off on tour. Seeing this capable strong woman begging male bureaucrats (presumably far less educated than she) to be allowed to attend an event for medical personnel is heartbreaking and anyone who has ever been caught in the jaws of any bureaucracy will identify with her.
Al-Mansour has struck gold again with her leading lady. Mila Al Zahrani, who appears in nearly every second of the film, has a strong but elegant screen presence and she makes the heroine an extremely appealing character. The heroine’s sisters are also a lot of fun and the interplay among them makes for some of the movie’s most enjoyable moments.
The bureaucracy and antiquated laws are the antagonist, rather than any specific villain and the movie suffers dramatically from the lack of a real bad guy. Most of the people are basically decent guys stuck in an archaic and unyielding system, one that can be swept away quite easily by people like the heroine, the film suggests. It would have been nice to get a little deeper into Maryam’s inner life, but perhaps Al-Mansour, who has gone abroad to direct such films as the biopic Mary Shelley, focused so closely on the truth of her heroine’s life that she needed to keep the struggle to be taken seriously front and center.