With only two films directed by women in competition at this year’s Venice Film Festival, there is the risk that an unfair weight of expectation will be loaded on to the female filmmakers who manage to make it to the Lido. Their films might be judged not simply on their own merits but must bear the weight of history, politics and female representation. Ironically, just this fate befalls Dr Maryam (Mila Alzahrani), a young Saudi doctor working in a small-town clinic who, through a series of twists, finds herself standing for election to the local council in Haifaa Al-Mansour’s The Perfect Candidate. “Is this a woman’s rights thing?” one of her colleagues asks. Likewise, when she is interviewed on TV, the baffled host asks Maryam about women’s issues – apparently women would like more gardens. But, while never denying that the human rights of women are of paramount importance, Maryam wants to talk about more and so does the film.
Saudi Arabia/Germany 2019
1hr 41 mins
Director Haifaa Al-Mansour
Maryam Mila Azahrani
Sara Nora Al Awadh
Abdulaziz Khalid Abdulrahim
The first time we meet Maryam she is driving a car and this is already an indication of change taking place in the Kingdom: women have only been allowed to drive since the law was changed in 2017. The accident and emergency clinic where Maryam works is rundown, and the road that leads up to it is unpaved and flooded because of a broken pipe. She is observant, wearing the niqab veil and observing fasts. She lives with her sisters Sara (Nora Al Awadh) and Selma (played by social media influencer Dhay), and father Abdulaziz (Khalid Abdulrahim), a musician who is still grieving for his wife and is amiably neglectful of his role as patriarch.
Although this affords the girls a certain freedom, it also means that when Maryam wishes to travel to a medical conference in Dubai, ambitious to apply for a job there and escape the sticks, she discovers her travel document is not up to date. This can’t be renewed without the permission of her father, but he has gone on a tour with a local music group. (Incidentally, this law has also recently been changed, allowing women to travel without the permission of a male guardian.) In trying to resolve her travel problems, Maryam somehow ends up as a candidate in the local elections, much to the initial outrage of almost everyone.
With the unpaved road to the clinic as her motivation, the accidental candidate bones up online on how to run a political campaign. Her wedding photographer sister Selma helps with adding pizzazz to her campaign video, which (as these things do in films) goes viral. Meanwhile her father’s tour continues, and he reconnects to life through his music and the comradeship of the band. But even this joy is under threat from radicals who don’t approve of music.
When Al-Mansour made her feature debut with Wadjda (2012) – the first feature film to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia – she directed many of the scenes via walkie-talkie, hidden away in a van so that men wouldn’t be seen taking direction from a woman. The Perfect Candidate is a testament to change as well as portraying that change in progress. Nothing in the film is as radical as its lightness of touch, its warm good humour and its sense of optimism. Maryam has a straightforward charisma and authority but she can also lose her temper when pushed, and her impassioned speech to a room of men is worthy of comparison to James Stewart in Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Some of the comedy is a tad formulaic and one particular final-act conversion to Maryam’s cause strains credulity, but there is an audacity to the optimism that is inspiring.