“The Perfect Candidate” – It’s relative [MOVIE REVIEW]

Mila Alzahrani in "The Perfect Candidate." Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

Mila Alzahrani in “The Perfect Candidate.” Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

“The Perfect Candidate,” written by Haifaa Al Mansour and Brad Niemann and directed by Mansour, is a film with as many ambitions as the lead character. This German/Saudi Arabian co-production was primarily filmed in Saudi Arabia, in itself a major accomplishment. That the director is a Saudi woman making her second film in that country is even more extraordinary. In many ways this is Mansour’s love song to her native land and the remarkable changes that have occurred in recent years. That there is so far yet to go from a woman’s rights standpoint is not the point. A few years ago, none of the events in this film would have been possible, beginning with the opening scene of the lead character, a female doctor driving a car to work.

Dr. Maryam Alsafan recognizes two things: as a woman she is allowed to practice medicine and also, she is relegated to second class status for the very reason that she is a woman. No activist, she merely wants a better job in a better clinic. Working at the sole clinic/emergency service in her town, her frustrations increase because access to the facility is limited due to an ongoing water leak in front of the entrance. Ambulances can’t drive up to the entrance, patients can’t traverse the mud, and Dr. Maryam arrives daily with muck splattered over her clothes and shoes. Repeated entreaties to the City Council to repair the road fall on deaf ears. Simply put, the town’s only medical facility is not a priority. She’s had it. Riyad is recruiting doctors at a meeting in Dubai and she decides that she must apply for one of those positions.

Borrowing money from her sister Selma, she registers for the meeting, buys an airline ticket and packs her bag. Her father, not thrilled with her decision, has his own distractions. A talented and renowned musician, he has had to support himself as a wedding singer. Until very recently, public performance has been against the law. But times are changing and he and the group he has assembled have been granted the right to tour the country for the first time.

The constricts of Saudi law regarding women catches Maryam in its crosshairs. Upon arrival at the airport for her flight, she presents her travel permit. It’s a paper permit and the airlines are only authorized to accept electronic passes, something she doesn’t have. Too bad. Unless she can get her father’s permission for this trip by the evening prayers, she will be unable to fly. Both the ticket and conference registration are non-refundable.

But her father is already gone. She rushes to the office of a cousin who is in a position of local power but his office will not let her in. He is only seeing people who want to be candidates for the City Council. So Maryam lies in order to see her cousin. He can’t help her get a travel permit but he’d be very happy if she submitted as the first female candidate for the council. It would be, he reasoned, a way she could get the entrance to the clinic repaved. She impulsively signs the paperwork and the film takes off.

Mila Alzahrani, Nourah Al Awad and Dhay in “The Perfect Candidate.” Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

Mansour takes us through all the hoops Maryam must jump in order to be an effective candidate in a country where even women are resentful of other women who want to lead unsheltered, public lives. Her sister, a successful business woman and trendsetter, holds a town hall for women but Maryam can barely get their attention after the abaya (the traditional cloak that covers the body) fashion show. Trying to present her case to men is even more problematic as women are never supposed to mingle with the opposite sex. It’s remarkably difficult to run a grass roots campaign in a country without any grass.

But the harder things get, the harder Maryam tries and the more you root for her. Her father, on tour, follows her on social media. His feelings are ambivalent. He and his deceased wife were also outliers as they lived for their music, a pastime that was clandestine, underground, and caused them and their daughters’ public shame. His real concern is that Maryam not be hurt; her youngest sister’s concern is that she not embarrass her further.

Mansour doesn’t need to state the obvious when it comes to the difficulties and hurdles Maryam faces because she is a woman. Put in another way, like Ginger Rogers, Maryam must do this dance backwards and in heels. Nevertheless, she also highlights the positives and that combination of good and bad drive the film. Maryam is a doctor; she drives a car; she tries to take more direct control of her life; she overcomes her natural reticence to create a public presence. Less emphasized, but quite important, is the difficult path her father has trod all these years. For him and his wife, music had been their life regardless of the humiliation they endured in a society that found performance to be shameful, a sin, and illegal. The fact that he dreamed of a day when he could perform publicly may have been one of the factors that encouraged his two eldest daughters to become independent and successful (the youngest is still a teen and everything and everybody is an embarrassment).

Entertaining from the beginning, the characters, major and minor, all bloom, from Maryam’s eventual transformation to that of an elderly patient who refuses to be touched, let alone treated, by a woman. The acting is excellent, led by Mila Al Zahrani as Maryam, and each character finds depth of feeling to transcend stereotype. It is hoped that this film can be shown in Saudi Arabia, a country that has only recently opened their first cinemas.

In Arabic with English subtitles.

Opening Friday May 14 at the Laemmle Royal.




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