Haifa Al Mansour’s latest is less effective than WADJDA but remains insightful and often engaging
Saudi Arabia’s first-ever female filmmaker, Haifa Al Mansour is a game-changer in the industry. Her breakthrough, WADJDA, announced the arrival of a major talent and a unique voice. In her follow-up to this BAFTA-nominated film, and her first film shot in Saudi Arabia after several Hollywood projects, THE PERFECT CANDIDATE carries Al Mansour’s unique touch even if it trails WADJDA in terms of quality and narrative quality.
Set in a small town in which patriarchy and gender stereotypes prevail, a young doctor (Mila Alzahrani) is trying to change – and challenge – the system. When she is denied exit from Saudi Arabia to attend a key medical conference in Dubai due to bureaucratic measures (in Saudi Arabia, women need a written and now electronic approval letter from a male guardian), she decides to run for a seat in the local council. Her quest soon changes from simply getting her way into challenging an entire town’s views and prejudices – and challenging herself along the way. But things never go as planned, and Maryam is in for a rude awakening as she realizes the extent of the male gaze and the difficulty with which deeply rooted societal norms could be changed.
While WADJDA employed subtlety to reflect on an ailing Saudi Arabia, Al Mansour goes for a more direct, and often obvious, narrative approach with THE PERFECT CANDIDATE. It is an approach that works more often than not, but does not truly elevate the film into a major work. While certainly less layered and nuanced than her explosive debut feature, it still boasts multiple strong points that, despite the flaws, keep it from turning into a pedestrian, melodramatic work.
Aided by some fantastic performances from new actors, Al Mansour makes a scathing critique of patriarchy in a society that is at odds with itself. The film has several narrative threads, not equally as engaging, but perhaps the most delightful and illuminating to watch is that of Maryam’s preparations of her political campaign as local council rep. Despite of knowing that her chances are quite slim, she relentlessly mounts a campaign that defies everything the town has been used to. In focusing the film on a campaign that audiences, and the film’s own protagonist, know will never fully come to fruition (female reps in Saudi local councils are quite an anomaly), the film engages in the process and not the outcome. It becomes not about success or votes, but rather carving a way to change the status quo.
Another quite successful element is Maryam’s intriguing exchanges with her male patients who refuse to be touched by a female doctor. The development of such relationship between doctor and patient remains one of the film’s most successful elements, and Al Mansour weaves those in the overall story quite well. Other elements detract from the film, however, such as the entire plotline pertaining to Maryam’s father. A music artist who, after the passing of her mother, kept the matriarch’s spirit alive and goes off on a cross-country music tour, the character is unengaging and Al Mansour doesn’t know how to make it fit within what she’s trying to say about her characters or the traditionalist society at large.
Verdict: Flawed but engaging, THE PERFECT CANDIDATE could be embraced by international audiences curious about life in the Kingdom. It may not have the nuance and beauty of Al Mansour’s first works but it nevertheless succeeds in offering a compelling tale about women’s everyday fight for equality.