The Perfect Candidate

 

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Women are at the heart of this work exploring ordinary life in Saudi Arabia today.

 
Perfect Candidate 

In cinema history there have been a number of directors from Orson Welles down who have produced a first feature of such exceptional quality that it has become an albatross overshadowing their later work. A case in point is Haifaa Al Mansour, the first female filmmaker to emerge from Saudi Arabia. Her 2012 debut with Wadjda may not have displayed the technical inventiveness of Citizen Kane, but all the same it was a triumph that lodged in the memory. It did so in part because it meant that a female had created a work which dared to centre itself on an appealing 10-year-old girl asserting herself in a society in which females of any age are expected to display a spirit of conformity. That in itself made Wadjda a film both unexpected and wonderful, but the same description applied also to the remarkable child actress who took the leading role, Waad Mohammed. There is also a third factor to explain why Wadjda is so fondly remembered and that is the warmth and humanity at its heart. 

 

Acclaim for that work led to Al Mansour being in demand and she succumbed to making two films in English, Mary Shelley (2017) and Nappily Ever After (2018), both of which lacked distinction. Consequently, all who admired Wadjda should welcome this fourth feature which finds the director back in Saudi Arabia and safely on home ground in more senses than one. The screenplay, written by her and Brad Niemann, again concerns the way in which females are treated in Saudi Arabia, but it does so without echoing Wadjda too closely. There is no young girl central here. Instead it tells the story of a family headed by a musician who is a widower (Khalid Abdulraheem) living in a small town with his three daughters. The oldest, Selma (Dhay), has followed in their late mother's footsteps by becoming a wedding singer while the youngest, Sara (Nourah Al Awad), is still a teenager. However, the film's main character is the middle sister, Maryam (Mila Atzahrani). She is a doctor working locally and with some success although we do witness an elderly patient (Hamad Almuzainy) expressing outrage over the idea of being treated by a woman doctor. However, she is skilled enough to be planning a visit to a conference in Dubai in anticipation of being interviewed there for a post in Riyadh for which, as she puts it, she would be the perfect candidate.

 

However, due to a twist of fate which could not have arisen had she been a man, her proposed journey is thwarted and she seeks instead candidature in local municipal elections. A prime aim is to get the inadequate road to the clinic repaired, this being work repeatedly put off by a council claiming that it is not urgent. What follows portrays the mixture of approval and disdain (not always as predictable in its expression as you might expect) that greets her campaign and, although I found something lacking in the characterisation of Maryam's father whose attitude changes, the resolution of the story is persuasive and not without unexpected touches. Well-acted but without a role as telling as the key one in Wadjda, this is not a film to equal Al Mansour's debut yet it is possessed of the same sense of authenticity and the same warmth. Never seeking the intensity that might have heightened it as drama, this unhurried portrayal of everyday life may have yielded a minor work, but for all that it is a truthful and satisfying one.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Mila Alzahrani, Khalid Abdulraheem, Dhay, Nourah Al Awad, Tarek Ahmed Al Khaldi, Shafi Al Harthy, Hamad Almuzainy, Bandar Alkhudair, Ahmad Alsulaimy.

 

Dir Haifaa Al Mansour, Pro Roman Paul, Gerhard Meixner, Haifaa Al Mansour and Brad Niemann, Screenplay Haifaa Al Mansour and Brad Niemann, Ph Patrick Orth, Pro Des Olivier Meidinger, Ed Andreas Woodraschke, Music Volker Bertelmann, Costumes Heike Fademrecht.

 

Al Mansour Establishment for Audiovisual Media/Razor Film/Norddeutscher Rundfunk-Modern Films.
104 mins. Germany/Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 2019. Rel: 27 March 2020. Available on Curzon Home Cinema. Cert. PG.