“Scales” – Ascending and descending [MOVIE REVIEW]

Basima Hajjar as Hayat in “Scales.” Photo courtesy of Variance Films.

“Scales,” the ambitious film by writer/director Shahad Ameen, attempts to create an ancient fable as a metaphor for female empowerment. Filmed in black and white by cinematographer João Ribeiro, Ameen creates a dystopian society centered within the Mesopotamian region of ancient Babylonia whose very existence is at the whim of the sea goddesses ruling the waters where fishing provides the meager means by which this tiny village survives. But the goddess (it’s unclear whether it’s one or several) demands a high price—human sacrifice, more specifically the first born daughters. Ceremonially, those female babies are cast into the sea as offerings to the mermaid goddess.

But one fateful night, a father is unable to let go. When his baby daughter, Hayat, refuses to sink, he rescues her and upends the balance of the village and of nature itself. Both he and Hayat are shunned, deemed to represent all the bad luck suffered by the inhabitants. But as she grows older, Hayat, the outcast, refuses to be shunted aside. She will not accept her role as the unwanted girl in a patriarchal society. She forces herself on to them, becoming the fearless fisherman that her father is not.

Ameen uses Hayat to represent all repressed and under-served women in society and it will be a lowly girl, Hayat, who ultimately rescues the village from the sea goddess.

She has made a very sensorial film that reveals a hyperbolic patriarchal society ignoring the substantive importance of women. Her intentions are noble and grand but the execution is muddled. The character of Hayat, shunned by both men and women, is of a singular nature. Yes, she is determined and succeeds in defying boundaries but the through-line to the end is confused and blurry. In a way, Ameen has substituted one powerful goddess, the mermaid Atragatis, with another, Hayat.

Basima Hajjar as Hayat in “Scales.” Photo courtesy of Variance Films.

The cinematography is stunning and the use of sound, especially in the silences that underscore the haunting desperation of these villagers, creates a very particular world I suspect she intended to be metaphoric, something that generally gives me the vapors.

With the exception of Amer, the alpha male in the story, the other characters, including Hayat, around whom the story centers, suffer from the diffuse nature of Ameen’s attempt to highlight what happens when a whole segment of society is ignored. That it is the main antagonist, Amer, who shows the most development through incremental changes in his attitude is more of a tribute to Ashraf Barhom, the actor who plays him, than what was probably on the page. Barhom, a well-known Palestinian actor, has the international bona fides that attest to the power and nuance of his performance in this film.

“Scales” is a worthy attempt at blending mythology with the roots of misogyny. That Saudi Arabia chose this as their submission to the International Film category for the 93rd Oscars is an indication of the changes occurring in that country. Ameen is definitely a writer/director to follow, but “Scales” is both a hit and a miss. I am, nevertheless, happy to have seen it and feel it deserves an audience, both from the standpoint of message and technique.

Opening at the Laemmle Royal on July 9.

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Written by: Neely Swanson

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