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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

The Perfect Candidate

Following a doctor who runs for local council, this rousing drama unpacks life in Saudi Arabia today and agitates passionately for change.
By Sarah Ward
May 06, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
May 06, 2021
  shares

With 2012's Wadjda, Haifaa al-Mansour became the first female filmmaker from Saudi Arabia to make a full-length movie. Fittingly, she achieved the feat via a powerful tale about a girl breaking boundaries — by fighting to ride a bicycle in the street, an activity that's by no means routine in the Middle Eastern country. A hopeful yet truthful film that depicts the present-day reality for Saudi women, while also remaining committed to dreaming of a different future, al-Mansour's directorial debut marked the first-ever feature shot entirely in her homeland, too. Accordingly, she smashed barriers in multiple ways, including both on- and off-screen. Nine years later, she demonstrates the same spirit again with The Perfect Candidate. After exploring another female trailblazer in 2017 biopic Mary Shelley, then pondering the beauty standards imposed upon women in 2018 rom-com Nappily Ever After, al-Mansour delivers the ideal companion piece to her applauded first picture — this time focusing on a young Saudi doctor who tackles her town's misogynistic and patronising attitudes by running for local council.

No matter the day or situation, the ambitious Maryam (debutant Mila al-Zahrani) is repeatedly reminded that women aren't considered equal in her community. In one of The Perfect Candidate's early scenes, an elderly male patient writhes in agony, but is more upset about the fact that she'll be treating him — until Maryam's condescending boss proclaims that male nurses can easily step in and do the job for her. When her recently widowed musician father Abdulaziz (Khalid Abdulraheem) goes away on tour, she attempts to fly to Dubai for a medical conference and subsequent job interview that would see her move to Riyadh. Alas, she's stopped from departing because her dad hasn't updated her travel permit, and she can't leave unless he rectifies the paperwork. A male cousin (Ahmad Alsulaimy) in a role of authority within the government might be able to assist, but even the bonds of blood aren't enough to get her through the door to his office. He's interviewing and approving candidates for the municipal election, so Maryam puts her name forward just to progress past his secretary. That still doesn't help her make her flight, but it does send her in a different direction. While already struggling to convince her employers to pave the road to the town's emergency medical clinic, she decides to run to fix that specific problem — and the more backlash she receives for putting herself in contention, the more determined she is to campaign for change.

The Perfect Candidate is filled with moments that convey Saudi Arabia's strong and strict gender divide. The film might start with Maryam driving — a right that was only granted to Saudi women in 2018 — but engrained patriarchal attitudes nonetheless shape every aspect of the character's life. "Keep her away from me! Don't look into my eyes!" the aforementioned patient screams, and horrifyingly so. The reactions from airport staff and bureaucrats when she tries to travel without her legal guardian's approval aren't as blunt, but they still infuriatingly endeavour to put Maryam in her societally deemed place. When she releases a video announcing her candidacy, even her younger sister Sara (Nora al-Awad) is mortified, not to mention embarrassed by the scathing comments sent Maryam's way by women and men alike. During a TV interview with a male journalist, she's asked if she cares about female issues, such as gardening. Naturally, she isn't impressed. And at an event to sway male voters — one where tradition dictates that she can't address them directly, forcing her to rely on new friend Omar (Tareq Ahmed al-Khaldi) to play host — she's instantly dismissed because she's a woman and mocked because her late mother was a wedding singer.

When Maryam is glaring daggers at dismissive colleagues from beneath her niqāb, swapping fierce words with her public detractors or doing her best to care for patients that abhor her presence simply because she's a woman, first-timer al-Zahrani is a furious force to be reckoned with. But again and again, she also relays the weariness that lingers beneath every concerted effort to overcome the boundaries applied to Maryam due to her gender. Indeed, two of the film's very best scenes — and two of al-Zahrani's firm highlights — swing from one extreme to the other. The ferociousness that echoes from the screen during Maryam's television appearance sits in stark contrast to the baked-in exhaustion and exasperation that's evident when she's sitting alone in her family's courtyard on election night. Al-Mansour guides nuanced and multi-layered performances out of the bulk of her cast of newcomers, and constantly has Patrick Orth's (Toni Erdmann) naturalistic cinematography peer at them closely, but she has unearthed a powerhouse portrayal from her magnetic lead performer

It would've been easy for al-Mansour and al-Zahrani to lean exclusively on anger, dismay and indignation — Maryam's, as well as the audience's — to fuel The Perfect Candidate, but that's not the only approach they take. The sights seen, attitudes expressed and scenes witnessed also help dive into the daily minutiae for Saudi women, including glimpses of the rare occasions when they're permitted a reprieve from male oversight. Both heated and warm exchanges between Maryam, Sara and their elder sister Selma (Dae al-Hilali) are intimately observed. So too are the wedding receptions and parties that the latter sibling stages in her job as an events planner. And the film provides broader context as well, by also spending time with Maryam's worrying father during his travels. He isn't simply concerned about his daughters' choices, but also about the need for him to even play the culturally demanded role as their guardian. Abdulaziz doesn't ever steal the movie's focus, but his subplot does make it plain that the oppressive status quo is also unwieldy for those who just want the best for their children. As penned by al-Mansour and producer/co-writer Brad Niemann, The Perfect Candidate's script may hit plenty of foreseeable narrative beats; however, this rousing, spirited and gripping feature equally unpacks life in Saudi Arabia today, avoids painting it as straightforward or clear-cut, and agitates passionately for change.

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