“The Matchmaker” is an edgy Saudi parable, an inverted “Handmaid’s Tale” warning the patriarchy about a mythical reckoning to come from the oppressed women in their lives.
But being Saudi, it was filmed by men and its words of warning are both directed at and told for the benefit of the men impacted when the women figure out a way to trap, torture and kill the wayward males in their ranks.
It’s OK as it is, but Margaret Atwood might like a word and a have a few suggestions.
“Matchmaker” sets up as a folk tale, of an abused girl of the desert who cries for help and “an ear…that could understand her” hears her cries and intervenes on her behalf. The story then evolves into a thriller about a bored workaholic and disinterested husband and father (Hussam Alharthi) who finds himself tempted by a woman (Nour AlKhadra) at the office.
Salma keeps her head uncovered, and is thus catnip to all the Saudis around her.
Tarak eyes her like everybody else, pretends to smoke so he has an explanation for following her into their office’s stairwell, and gets absolutely zero encouragement for his troubles.
And then she quits. He grabs a purse she’s left behind, and that’s where he finds the tablet, the iPad that opens up on an ad for a discrete marriage “matchmaking” site.
“Register now, and no one will know,” (in Arabic, with English subtitles, or dubbed into English).
Next thing we know, he’s being chauffeured into the desert, to a remote resort hotel. To Salma, he hopes.
That’s where The Matchmaker (Reem Al Habib) finishes the sales pitch, promises him his heart’s desire and initiates Tarak and other Saudi men of enough means into her and her staff’s “services.”
Of course there are “rules,” and of course he’s going to break them. But without doing that, how can Tarak get the idea that all is not what it seems, that these uniformed staff rituals and special garments he’s given are not what they seem, when what they seem is kind of creepy anyway?
Director and co-writer Abdulmohsen Al-Dhabaan maintains a chilling tone by showing us the consequences of the revenge exacted by “the ear” in the folk tale/legend that introduces the story.
He’s dabbling in “Twilight Zone” and “Seconds” (the Frankenheimer film) territory here, grabbing hold of male insecurity and wish-fulfillment fantasy and repeating the age-old warning, “Be careful what you wish for.”
This Around the World with Netflix offering isn’t anyone’s idea of a scathing indictment of a culture’s sexist mores and practices, or all that daring a film by Western standards. The film has a sappy, sentimental coda that feels like a punch that’s been pulled.
But considering its source, a land built on a patriarchal “moral” code enforced by a state that advocates Sharia Law at its harshest, a monarchical theocracy that still beheads people, “The Matchmaker” plays as a fascinating if oblique filmed acknowledgement of how things are and a soft warning to the powers that be that this is unsustainable, and that perhaps they should repent or liberate half their populace before that bell tolls.
Rating: TV-14, violence
Cast: Hussam Alharthi, Reem Al Habib, Nour AlKhadra,, Rahaf Ibraheem
Credits: Directed by Abdulmohsen Al-Dhabaan, scripted by Fahad Alastaa and Abdulmohsen Al-Dhabaan. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:22