Saudi Arabian cinema has a very short history. The first feature shot there was only in 2012! And it was written and directed by a woman, Haifaa Al-Mansour. Since then she’s worked in other countries but for The Perfect Candidate she returned home and shot a film that’s part family drama, part feminist anthem, and all a pleasure to watch. It’s Maryam’s (Mila Al Zahrani) story. An accomplished physician in a small town, she’s still living in the patriarchy and chafing under it’s strict rules for women. Early on, she’s heading to a conference out of town when she’s not allowed to board a plane because her travel permit has expired. And she can only rectify it if she has her guardian sign. A grown woman and she needs a man to sign! It’s a great way to introduce the audience to the insanity of being a woman in Saudi Arabia and to Maryam who’s fed up with it.
Maryam’s father who could fix things is an oud player and on tour, so she decides to see if a male cousin can help her out. But the only way to get in to see him is to sign up to run for a municipal office. She isn’t really planning to do it, but the idea becomes more attractive as she thinks about what she could do if she won. And she decides to go for it. The main issue for her campaign is getting the road in front of the clinic where she works paved. It’s a muddy mess and patients can’t get the help they need.
At first her sisters are not supportive, but the older one does come around, while the younger one thinks of all the ways that her sister’s candidacy will hurt the family image. But Maryam grows into her role as candidate and breaks some taboos, like walking into a room full of men to talk to them directly. It’s definitely a #girlpower flick.
For those of us who haven’t been in Saudi Arabia, the film is also a fascinating look into the lives of women, covering themselves in niqabs and hijabs at times so as not to offend the men, having wedding parties where the women dress up and have a fun only to have to cover up when the men come in. It’s a film only a female director could have made in Saudi Arabia. And Maryam is a great character. She’s a young women looking towards her future but being disregarded by the men around her, and she’s not having it any longer.
The film has a soft edge to it fortunately. The father who’s away from home throughout the film is supportive of his daughter, having just lost his wife who was also a woman who pushed boundaries. The film is definitely a challenge to the Saudi norms and the ways that women there are now moving into professions where they deserve equal respect to their male peers. I wonder how it’s being received there. It was the Saudi submission for the Academy Awards.
Good performances and a “fight the patriarchy” story along with a dive into a culture most of us have never experienced make for a very entertaining flick. I definitely recommend this one.
[Mainstream Chick’s quick take: I enjoyed this film as well. It manages to weave in family, politics, culture, music, sisterhood, and girl power with a quaint, light touch. There are many ways in which it could have gone heavy-handed with the messages but I think director Al-Mansour’s approach helps give this foreign film a broader, mainstream appeal. The performances also help sell it – especially that of Mila Al Zahran as Maryam. I hope The Perfect Candidate finds its way to streaming services – and an audience. -hb]