Movie Review: Saudi Woman takes on the system as “The Perfect Candidate”

Maryam has decided to run for office, a position on the municipal council in her suburban town. But her widowed father isn’t having it. And he’s trotting out his catch-phrase for everything to do with her campaigning for this office.

“Think of my BLOOD pressure!”

“I’ve checked your blood pressure hundreds of times,” she snaps back. “It’s FINE.”

When you’re arguing with a daughter with “MD” after her name, you’d better bring something stronger than that. Especially if you’re taking on “The Perfect Candidate.” Even if you’re the patriarch in one of the most patriarchal societies in the world — Saudi Arabia.

This understated dramedy is about an ambitious young woman who finds herself running and seriously rocking the boat, almost entirely by accident. Avoiding melodrama and the well-worn tropes of “woman taking on a man’s world” stories, director Haifaa Al-Mansour and co-writer Brad Niemann immerse us in a culture that might be evolving from a Kafkaesque nightmare into a milder Kafkaesque bad dream. But it isn’t happening fast enough for people like our young heroine.

We commute with Maryam, played with a dash of fire by Mila Al Zahrani, as she copes with the endless work-arounds a woman faces in hidebound Islamic fundamentalist Saudi culture. A modern state with the theocratic bureaucracy of a Medieval one, she must comply with all these restrictions on her dress and her movements — a hijab, with the full-face covering of a single-woman’s niqab — changing into sneakers and lab coat at the only clinic in her town.

At least she’s allowed to drive now, we think. But once at work, she has to deal with elderly men furious at being treated by a woman, and Maryam isn’t above snapping back at the old sexists.

The road to that clinic is a rutted quagmire which interferes with getting patients in the door quickly, annoying her to no end. Maryam would like to get that fixed, but is easily dismissed by the men in charge. She’d like to escape to a real hospital in Riyadh. And it’s the string of appalling roadblocks The Kingdom throws up in front of her as she tries to do just that which puts her on the ballot.

A flight to a conference where she can network her way into Riyadh won’t let her board as her single woman’s travel papers are not in order. She’s a grown woman with a medical degree who needs her father’s permission to renew them and fly, and he (Khalid Abdulraheem) is off with his traditional Saudi wedding band, on tour and not big on answering his phone.

The portrait of Saudi inefficiency, dogmatic “the system won’t let me” bureaucrats and official/religious/cultural control of women is more infuriating than chilling here. The deadlines she is fighting include the multiple daily interruptions for state-sanctioned prayers. How does anything get done?

Maryam’s sister Selma (Dae Al Hilali) is a wedding photographer, and through Maryam’s frantic visit to her about the travel papers we see the gender segregation of weddings, with the women entertained by singer Khadeeja (Khadeeja Mua’th), able to laugh and sing along and be themselves, until the men enter the room.

Thus, the mistaken “filing” for council, a mistake that Maryam runs with as she, with the reluctant help of videographer/sister Selma and the pouty opposition of teen sister Sara (Nora Al Awad) and a lot of internet tutorials on “how to run for office” (an unpolished rural Tennessean who wants to be governor is her exemplar), joins the political fray.

“The Perfect Candidate” crosses every expected bridge and hits a lot of the anticipated potholes such movies have always traversed. Sexist TV interviewer? Check. “Traditional” women bashing a female candidate for her “impudent” online ads, “showing herself off to men” after she’s gone to the extra trouble of hiding her eyes, too? Got it.

The film’s novelty is built into it. We have a most photogenic candidate unable to show her face to the public, a woman campaigning on a single issue that impacts men as much as women, but she is unable to address them directly “by law.”

The blowback, when it comes, is online-predictable and “powers that be” subtle.” And even the “I’ve had about enough of this” blasts of temper and the lump-in-the-throat moments that hints at “change” are preordained, if pleasantly so.

But Al Zahrani, making her screen debut, holds our interest by not holding her temper. Maryam is young enough to be impatient, traditional enough to play by the rules and realistic enough to see the futility of it all.

And yet, she persists. The Kingdom has no idea what’s coming.

MPA Rating: unrated

Cast: Mila Al Zahrani, Dae Al Hilali, Nora Al Awad, Tareq Al Khaldi and Khalid Abdulraheem

Credits: Directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, script by Haifaa Al-Mansour, Brad Niemann. A Music Box release.

Running time: 1:44

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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