The Perfect Candidate
Saudi Arabia (2019) Dir. Haifaa Al-Mansour
Women in the Middle East have few freedoms as we know, but one of the worst things to hinder them is a lack of voice. It would take a very brave woman to stand up and want to be counted among her male peers to represent her gender in a stubborn, hidebound male patriarchy.
Maryam Alsafan (Mila Al Zahrani) is a doctor in a small clinic which is underfunded and understaffed, not mention at the end of a road which is beyond repair that nobody will do anything about. Due to fly out to medical conference in Dubai, Maryam finds her travel visa has expired and needs a new one but that requires her father’s endorsement who is away with his band, so he hopes to get her cousin Rashid (Ahmad Alsulaimy) to sub for her father.
Because of the red tape, Maryam can’t see Rashid as he is busy with applicants for the upcoming local elections, so Maryma registers to become a candidate to get her foot in the door. Despite being a ploy Maryam still goes through with it, her main pledge being to fix the roads outside the clinic, with her sister Selma (Dhay) as campaign manager, whilst younger sister Sara (Noura Al Awad) is embarrassed by it all, sharing the same dismay as the community with having a female political candidate.
Haifaa Al-Mansour gave us the wonderful Wadjda in 2012 about a young girl wanting to own a bicycle which was frowned on for girls. After a few years in the US, Al-Mansour returns home for The Perfect Candidate, which superficially may appear to be a retread of Wadjda but with an adult woman taking on the male establishment. This would be due to the fact the plight of woman seeking equality in Saudi Arabia is a never ending one, thus films like this still need to be made.
Al-Mansour is a trailblazer herself being Saudi Arabia’s first filmmaker yet while progress is being made it remains a long hard slog for women to reach something even remotely close to the same status as men in their society. To negate Wadjda part 2 accusations, an obvious difference between 2012 and 2019 is women now being allowed to drive and do so alone, which is a significant step, considering the bicycle ban in Wadjda.
Then there is the fact Maryam is a doctor which in itself is remarkable but as we see in the very first minute, the position still hasn’t earned women any respect. Omar (Tareq Al Khaldi) brings his ill grandfather Abu Musa (Hamad Al Mazaini) into the clinic and Maryam is the first doctor on hand to see him, but the old man refuses to have a woman near him. He is treated by male nurses who misdiagnose his ailment which Maryam tries to explain is far more serious and requires surgery, but Abu Musa still won’t talk to her.
Continuing this vexing portrayal of an oppressive society, Maryam’s visa problems opens up another can of worms when the airport won’t budge in accepting her paper visa and she has to have father as her guardian to have a renewed visa authorised! But musician Abdulaziz (Khalid Abdulraheem) is on the road and his phone is switched off, highlighting the folly that even a doctor isn’t a respectful enough vocation that a grown woman needs her father to have a simple form signed.
Essentially forced into entering the local council elections, it is interesting younger sister Sara sees this as a scandal in the making, yet wedding videographer older sister Selma is onboard, making a campaign video which of course goes viral – with Maryam’s face completely to avoid upsetting the hardliners. Illustrating the far reaching depth of the struggle is, a female-only fundraiser flops since most of the women won’t vote without their father or husband’s permission, or out of fear of upsetting them.
So, Maryam needs to target the male voters too. Unfortunately, she can’t be in the same place as men or talk to them in person so she has to canvas them via video link. Sadly, the old “woman’s place is in the home” bias is the popular consensus and this also bombs for Maryam. Just when all seems lost, some good comes from her actions, though in true wounded ego fashion it is indirect, but the fact remains, if Maryam hadn’t made a noise it wouldn’t have happened.
Films like this are gnarly but they need to be as they reflect a gnarly subject, with a tiny chance that they get their message out to anyone who will listen. Al-Mansour must have softened a bit from being in Hollywood, as the bite is still there but it doesn’t cut as deep as it should. The final act borders on schmaltz but is that glimmer of hope the film needs to prevent the fusty old bigots it is aimed at not to feel like they are being talked down to by a woman.
Leading a cast of first time actors, Mila Al Zahrani is a real force of nature as Maryam – determined yet graceful, angry yet poised – forming great chemistry with Dhay as sister Selma. Al-Mansour is careful not to push Maryam as a militant feminist or posit all men as chauvinists, instead ensures the light is shone on the broken, blinkered system and archaic attitudes of a patriarchy needing to join the rest of the world in the 21st century. It may not work but you can’t blame her for trying.
With a narrative that is more conventional than the earthier Wadjda, some might view The Perfect Candidate as a slighter film, but it shows maturity in Al-Mansour and her ability to make a point without bludgeoning the audience with angry rhetoric. There is still plenty to be frustrated with but by being suffused with a quiet dignity, Al-Mansour once again captures the plight of Saudi women with this stirring, empathetic essay.