Haifaa al-Mansour’s fourth feature continues her run of films about dynamic and driven women. After Mary Shelley and Nappily Ever After, she returns to Saudi Arabia in a story of politics, prejudice and generational trepidation.
Local doctor Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani) aspires for a position in a practice beyond her small town. She faces provincial prejudices each day as some men just cannot abide the touch of a female doctor, insisting on being consulted by less qualified, male nurses instead.
Through a series of bureaucratic inconveniences and misunderstanding, Maryam applies to run for office in the local elections, against the wishes of her sisters and father.
While the basic plot is a well-worn one, a great deal of pleasure can be derived from the central relationship between Maryam and her sisters, Sara (Nora Al Awadh) and Selma (Dae Al Hilali). These women are the driving force of the film, testing their newfound freedoms within the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Their performances are uniformly excellent. Frankly, I could have watched 100 minutes of their supportive interaction.
One element I struggled with was the B-plot, involving Maryam’s father, Abdulaziz (Khalid Abdulraheem), who is out on the road with his touring band, fulfilling his life’s ambition.
This side-narrative gives us a great deal of wonderful music and fleshes out an otherwise ancillary character but its placement in this film seems unnecessary and draws focus from Maryam’s far more emotionally engaging scenes. In fact, his reticence in supporting his daughter while pursuing his own aspirations seems downright selfish.
Beyond the rousing band music performed by Abdulaziz and his bandmates, Volker Bertelmann’s score utilises piano and strings in a way that is atmospherically charged. Sparingly used with memorable motifs, I hope Bertelmann’s score is released on streaming services.
The Perfect Candidate offers a glimpse into an incrementally more progressive Saudi Arabia. Where Haifaa al-Mansour excels is in her ability to highlight emboldened female figures in stories that inspire. Without meaning to discount her English language offerings, this film is her most emotionally resonant since Wajdja in 2012.
The Perfect Candidate is now available on selected VOD sites and is well worth your consideration while you’re self-isolating, or at any time for that matter.
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