DIRECTOR: HAIFAA AL MANSOUR
CAST: MILA ALSAHRAN, DAE AL HILALI, NORA AL ALWADH
ARABIC WITH ENGLISH SUBTITLES
CERT PG; 101 MINUTES
REVIEW by SUSAN GRAY
The Perfect Candidate is the perfect family film, as it explores the messy realities of establishing a separate adult identity independent from parents, owning a shared family history, sibling squabbles, depression and grief. That these themes play out against the backdrop of small town Saudi Arabia, makes Haifaa Al Mansour’s beautifully shot film all the more remarkable.
The Perfect Candidate begins with Dr Maryam, powerfully played by Mila Alzahran, driving along a badly made road to the clinic where she works. Her first elderly male patient violently refuses to be seen by a woman doctor, preferring a far less qualified male nurse. Then the clinic’s chairman abruptly ends a phone call while Maryam is in mid sentence.
Deftly weaving domestic scenes, with glimpses of provincial Saudi life, as Eid is celebrated, weddings take place and Maryam’s oud playing father goes on tour, Al Mansour creates a resonant frame for Maryam’s journey to greater independence and self knowledge. Saudi Arabia's emerging social changes are lightly, and sometimes comically portrayed, but the pace is never forced.
Maryam’s accidental candidature for the local council is a result of trying to attend a Dubai medical conference, and needing a male relative to renew her travel permit. She never makes the plane, but the chances to broaden her horizons are right under her nose.
The Perfect Candidate also offers a convincing portrayal of depression through the exchanges of Mayam’s widowed father Abulaziz, and his good humoured bandmate and neighbour Mohammad. Actors Khalid Abdulrahim and Sha Al Harthy have great chemistry and make excellent foils. ‘You look best when you don’t talk’, counters owl like Mohammad to Abulaziz’s relentless professional pessimism.
The film’s remarkable visual clarity, it is a German co-production, allow us familiarity both with the wider picture of Saudi life, but also to inhabit the interior experience of Saudi women. Covering up from head to toe to answer your own front door, and switching from designer fashions to traditional abayas and niqabs in the blink of an eye, start to feel second nature. And the surprisingly libidinous soundtrack of traditional music, underscore the clashes between extreme conservatism and halting progress, that ripple through the narrative.
Succeeding as a family drama, portrait of a nation in flux, and anthem for female empowerment, Al Mansour’s second feature is an outright winner.