The Movie Waffler New Release Review [VOD] - THE PERFECT CANDIDATE | The Movie Waffler


the perfect candidate review
A female doctor runs in a local Saudi election.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Haifaa Al-Mansour

Starring: Nora Al Awadh, Dae Al Hilali, Mila Al Zahrani

the perfect candidate poster

Haifaa al-Mansour's The Perfect Candidate opens with what should be an innocuous image, that of a woman driving, unaccompanied, to her workplace. But this is Saudi Arabia, where such a scenario is loaded with political and cultural significance. The woman, Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani), is among the first of her gender to be allowed to drive a car unaccompanied by a man, a simple act that was unthinkable as recently as 2013, when al-Mansour burst onto the world cinema scene with her quietly revolutionary debut, Wadjda.

Maryam's car is spotless. She hasn't even removed the plastic covering from the seats, perhaps so she might later sell the vehicle to a man and claim it untouched by her female form. But its mudcaps are filthy, caked in grime. This is thanks to the muddy road that makes the hospital where she is employed as a doctor near inaccessible for disabled patients. The hospital's pleas to the local council have fallen on deaf ears.

the perfect candidate review

As a Saudi working woman, Maryam must contend with misogyny at varying levels. An elderly male patient refuses to be treated by a woman, preferring to put himself in the unqualified hands of male nurses. When she arrives at the airport to take flight to Dubai for a medical convention, she is told her travel papers are out of date and she can only leave with the approval of a male sponsor (a dynamic recently tackled by the Iranian drama Permission). Unable to reach her father, a musician on tour, Maryam turns to a cousin employed by the local council. The jobsworths at his reception insist that he can only be seen by those applying to run in the upcoming local election. Maryam fills out a form, simply to see her cousin, but when he refuses to sign her visa, she takes another look at the application, and decides to run for office herself.

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Viewers in the secular west may have to adjust their expectations for a tale of a woman battling the patriarchy. This is Saudi Arabia, after all, and it's worth remembering that to make her debut feature not so long ago, al-Mansour was forced to hide in the back of a van and direct her actors by walkie-talkie. This is a country where many men still consider both women and cinema agents of evil, whose primary purpose is to corrupt their virtue. The Kingdom didn't even have movie theatres a few years ago, let alone women filmmakers, so don't expect a righteous tirade from The Perfect Candidate.

the perfect candidate review

Instead, we get a film that operates within the parameters of a society that is slowly progressing, with emphasis on 'slowly'. It's a film that never raises its voice above a certain level, because it's made by a filmmaker who knows how women are viewed when they speak too loudly. This is reflected in its protagonist, whose quest to win a seat on the local council may have been sparked by indignation at how her gender is treated, but it's fuelled not by feminism but simply by her goal of having the hospital road repaired. Tellingly, Maryam's campaign is framed as a feminist statement not by the women who made the film, but by the male characters who oppose her, knowing it's the best way to discredit her. Maryam is forced to insist over and over that she isn't running to improve the lives of women, but to advance everyone.

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The Perfect Candidate provides a forceful insight into the lives of Saudi women. Recent societal progressions allow them to hang out together, unaccompanied by men, and the film adopts a four weddings and no funerals structure, with Maryam's sister Sara (Nora Al Awadh) employed as a wedding videographer. Gathered together at these celebrations, the women seem happiest when excluded from male company, partying with all the rowdiness of a western Hen Night (though without the booze and male strippers of course). When the grooms enter the room, the atmosphere changes, and we're reminded that women are offered a chance to let their hair down only on the eve of losing one of their members to marriage.

the perfect candidate review

Where female politicians in the west seek to portray themselves as sexually ambiguous (pant-suits anyone?), Maryam's embracing of her femininity is perhaps the most startling cultural anomaly on display here. Her campaign meetings are accompanied by fashion shows, and her campaign video resembles something a 12-year-old girl might post on YouTube, all floral backgrounds and dancing butterflies. Maryam knows that her best chance of success is not to disappear among her coterie of male rivals, but to stand out as a non-threatening vision of femininity.

The Perfect Candidate is strongest when it's hanging out with Maryam, Sara and their teenage sister Selma (Dae Al-Hilali). With their father away, the girls discard the Niqabs at home, and within their walls, free from male eyes, there's little to distinguish them from three sisters you might observe in London, Paris or New York. Their Saudi male oppressors will argue that women should be women, but as The Perfect Candidate quietly illustrates, Maryam and her sisters, both sibling and societal, only really become women in the absence of men.

The Perfect Candidate is on Curzon Home Cinema March 27th.

2020 film reviews