Review: A rare glimpse at the indoor lives of Saudi women
“All politics are local,” the saying goes. That’s a guiding principle in “The Perfect Candidate,” in which a doctor runs for town council purely to get the muddy dirt road in front of a medical clinic paved.
But that saying comes from American politics. This is Saudi Arabia. Most importantly, the doctor (and candidate) is a woman. So the underlying issues in this film by pioneering Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour are about a lot more than paving a road.
Al-Mansour gained worldwide acclaim in 2012 with “Wadjda,” about a young Saudi girl aiming to own a bicycle. It was the first feature directed by a Saudi woman, and the first shot entirely inside the kingdom. It also provided a rare glimpse at the lives of Saudi women.
Nearly a decade later, “The Perfect Candidate” does much the same. In fact, its strength lies in the fascinating visual detail that fleshes out a rather formulaic script: the view we get once Saudi women go inside and remove the niqab, or facial veil, whether it’s cooking with family at home or dancing at a gender-segregated wedding.
It’s no accident that the very first scene introduces our main character, Maryam, as she drives her own car to work. Women in Saudi Arabia only gained this right in 2018, after a hard-fought and dangerous campaign by female activists (some of whom were jailed for their efforts).
But Maryam (Mila Al-Zahrani, in a lovely and sensitive portrayal), is no activist. She’s a quiet and hardworking doctor who lives a conservative lifestyle and just wants to do her job. And that muddy dirt road in front of her clinic is an obstacle: Stretchers carrying ill patients routinely get stuck in the mud.
Once she arrives at work and wipes the muck off her shoes, Maryam faces other indignities. An elderly patient refuses her care: “Get me a male doctor!” he cries. Worse, the clinic’s male administrator sides with the patient, ordering her to let male nurses take her place.
At home, where she lives with her recently widowed musician father and two sisters, Maryam obtains her father’s approval, as required by law, to travel to Dubai for a conference. But at the airport, she’s informed her permission has expired; she cannot fly unless she gets a male relative to sign off. “Who is your guardian?” the airport employee asks officiously. (This longstanding guardianship policy, treating adult women as minors, ended in 2019).
Since her father has left on tour with his band, Maryam has to track down a male cousin, a local official, to do the honors. But he’s busy; his secretary won’t let her into his office unless she’s a registered candidate for council elections. So she agrees.
Maryam faces innumerable obstacles that her male opponents don’t. In her first campaign video, to avoid anger from conservative elements, she covers her face entirely, even her eyes. On a TV station, she’s asked by her male interviewer if her “issues” include gardening and playgrounds. At an event with male voters, she must deliver her message by video link from another room. And when she makes a successful pitch at a launch party for women, they tell her they still cannot vote for her — either because they don’t vote at all, or because “my husband would kill me.”
Even Maryam’s two sisters at first try to talk her out of it — they’re afraid ridicule will follow, as it followed their late mother in her public career as a singer. The older of the two, Selma (played with warmth by Dhay, a social media influencer in Saudi Arabia), eventually comes around.
The film, at a slowly paced 104 minutes, follows two narrative tracks, both of which involve social and cultural struggles in the kingdom. There’s Maryam and her campaign, which gradually catches fire, and then there’s her father and his fellow musicians, trying to preserve their art form amid opposition to public performances.
As for the script, it turns obvious at several points. It’s hardly a surprise, for example, that the elderly male patient will come around in the end to see the light and appreciate Maryam’s care.
But most of the value in this film comes from the peek it gives us into life as a Saudi woman — a life that is changing, Al-Mansour points out, albeit too slowly for some. At one wedding celebration, an older woman, uncovered as she celebrates in a female-only room, approaches Selma, who’s photographing the event: “Don’t you dare point that camera at us!” Not to worry, Selma assures her. She won’t.
It’s fortunate, though, that Al-Mansour continues to point her own camera in places it’s rarely been before.
“The Perfect Candidate,” a Music Box Films release, is unrated by the Motion Picture Association of America. Running time: 104 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.