The third cinema film by writer-director Haifaa Al Mansour is a return to the successful mix of elements in her first feature, Wadjda in 2012. (She also directed a Netflix film Nappily Ever After, a romantic comedy, in 2018.) This new film returns her to a narrative about a woman in contemporary Saudi Arabia (KSA) following the difficult development process of her second feature Mary Shelley in 2018. I found this new film engaging and enjoyable but it raises several questions (as did Wadjda). A number of cultural/social changes have taken place in the KSA in the last few years and the film enters into a discourse about what women might be able to achieve in various ways. I was surprised by some of the narrative developments and I did wonder to what extent the events were fantasy/wish fulfilment. As I left at the end of the screening a young woman ran past me and several others shouting at the top of her voice and accusing the audience of laughing at the central character, saying it wasn’t funny and that the character would have been stoned to death in the real world. Each of us on the stairs were stunned by this and puzzled. None of us thought the film was necessarily a comedy, but certainly there are moments of humour in what is a rich and detailed script. However, this rather violent reaction does point to a genuine scepticism about how we should read the film. I have also seen reviews that describe the film as a comedy.
The narrative involves a family. The father, a distinguished musician and singer is still grieving for his recently deceased wife and is perhaps less concerned about what his three daughters are getting up to than other Saudi patriarchs. I presume that the youngest daughter, Sara, is still at school or college. Her two older sisters have different ideas and different jobs. Selma is an organiser of weddings – a big deal for wealthy families in KSA – and Maryam has trained as a doctor and is now working in a small local hospital on the edge of the town outside Riyadh. Maryam is ambitious for her own career but events will push her in unexpected directions as she becomes the central focus of the narrative. It’s worth noting, however, that her father has his own narrative which involves getting his band of traditional popular musicians back on the road. Such music has been repressed by the authorities for many years but now a new ‘National Band’ is to be set up by the state. Through a complicated series of events Maryam almost accidentally becomes a candidate for the local council and she then targets the need to build a proper road to her hospital as the basis for her campaign.
My first thought about the film was that it drew on similar events to those in films like Rana’s Wedding (Palestine-Neth-UAE 2002), At Five in the Afternoon (Iran-France 2003) and Permission (Iran 2018). In each of these films, a young woman is attempting to achieve something important but is blocked at crucial moments by a system that forces her to get permission, usually from a male authority figure, or to go through bureaucratic processes that are more difficult for women, especially when they are veiled. This new film presents us with a political candidate completely covered by a burqa as in At Five in the Afternoon. Each of these films also eventually involves the woman in personal dramas which are used to critique more general social issues. My second point thought has been that Haifaa Al Mansour finds herself in a similar situation to Gurinder Chadha in the UK in that she is approaching issues about her own culture through forms of popular entertainment that may involve familiar ‘feelgood’ elements. It’s significant that both women have American partners (who are also co-writers) and have made films in the US. They have both then faced quite polarised responses by critics and by social commentators and general cinema audiences. The Perfect Candidate was reviewed after its Venice appearance by Jay Weissberg of Variety as a totally formulaic film in which plot points are signalled well in advance and which the characters themselves carry the plotline because the film is otherwise visually bland. Other reviews praise the film for its message of female empowerment. It is worth noting, however, that the film is sanctioned by the Saudi Film Council and that it is officially the Saudi entry for the Foreign Language Oscar competition. So it is clearly not seen as ‘radical’ – or at least not ‘dangerously’ so. But these kinds of judgements can backfire. Without spoiling the narrative I can note that our female protagonist both ‘loses’ and ‘wins’. Audiences take what they want from films. If young women in Saudi Arabia (and other countries) get to see the film and are inspired to attempt some form of social rebellion, no matter how small-scale and limited, the film will have had an effect.
The plot may be formulaic and the narrative an over optimistic fantasy but the script manages to tie the father’s narrative to that of his daughter. Again this made me think of Gurinder Chadha’s films in which in similar communities of strong women in patriarchal societies, it is the father’s support which confirms the possibility of change. The performances in the film are generally very good including Mila Al Zahrani as Maryam and Khalid Abdulraheem as her father. As in Wadjda, the director is relying on established TV actors with little opportunity to play in films. Selma, the videographer is played by a well-known Saudi ‘social media influencer’ Dhay (Dae Al Hilali). The film also features a female wedding singer played by Khadeeja Mua’th, a major star in Saudi Arabia who made me think of an African-American soul singer. There are 10 million foreigners in Saudi Arabia, most of whom are migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Egypt and elsewhere in Asia. I don’t think this population was represented in the film, though there are characters who might be of African origin. When I told a friend I’d seen a film made in Saudi Arabia he said he thought it was a disgusting regime and he wouldn’t watch a Saudi film. I can understand this reaction but I think films always tell us something about the societies they depict and The Perfect Candidate has prompted me to research the country a little more. At the moment, I don’t think the film has been picked up for UK distribution. Here’s the international trailer.