Review: The Perfect Candidate Shows the Painful Process of Change for Saudi Women

She likes to drive her car—fast. She’s a physician who practices at a small-town clinic. She’s smart and focused and speaks her mind. She also wears a head-to-toe black abaya that shows only her eyes. She needs her father’s permission to travel to a professional conference. She’s a modern Saudi Arabian woman and although she may now have the right to drive, she’s still burdened by centuries of patriarchy.

Dr. Maryam (Mila Alzahrani) has seen a little light beyond these customs and she’s decided to do something about it. In the 2019 Saudi film, The Perfect Candidate, she decides to run for the municipal council so she can address important issues—first of all, the unpaved and often flooded road to her clinic.

Mryam (Mila Alzahrani) at her campaign party. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

Writer/director Haifaa al-Mansour, considered the first female filmmaker in Saudi Arabia, has created a tender family story and a feminist narrative that introduces us to life in the kingdom, with humor and without political invective. Maryam’s father Abdulaziz (Khalid Abdulrhim) is a professional musician—an  oud player—and more liberal than traditional Saudi men. Her recently deceased mother was also a musician. Maryam is a strong and tenacious woman and reminds her father of his late wife. Despite his complaints about what she does to his blood pressure, he’s a loving and sympathetic father.

Maryam and her two sisters—Selma (Dhay), a wedding videographer, and their younger sister Sara (Nora Al Awad), the most traditional member of the family—live the comfortable private life of Saudi women. While out in public, they wear abayas, but at home it’s jeans and casual western clothes. Besides gaining permission to drive, some Saudi women go out in public now without their faces covered. In fact, the requirement that a woman have her guardian‘s approval to travel was lifted in 2019.

Social events are segregated. Weddings and other parties are gender-segregated and some of the most enchanting scenes in the film are women relaxed, singing, dancing and celebrating together, without men. When Abdulaziz’s band goes on tour, they play to gender-segregated audiences.

After Maryam decides to run for office, she has to organize her own campaign, with the help of her savvy sister Selma. Maryam shows her sisters a campaign video by an unkempt Tennessee candidate named Basil, who promises to get rid of backroom politics and move the capital to Chattanooga. This does not look professional, says Selma. Exactly, says Maryam, he’s a local politician like me. Selma creates Maryam’s campaign video; it’s much better than Basil’s.

Maryam’s campaign holds separate fundraising events for women and men. She has to ask a male friend to host the men’s event since her father is on tour with his band. Maryam speaks to the male audience behind a screen because she can’t speak to them directly. Late in her campaign, she’s interviewed by a patronizing TV anchor who doesn’t understand why a woman is running for office.

Maryam meets resistance from women too. When she asks a woman at her fundraiser if she can count on her vote, the woman says “I don’t know. I have to ask my husband.” But Maryam’s creative campaign, conducted within Saudi customs, begins to build some momentum and it’s possible to see more change in the future of this strictly structured society. (There’s no mention of national Saudi politics or of the policies and practices of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.)

Brad Niemann was cowriter of The Perfect Candidate. Director Al-Mansour’s 2013 film Wadjda was the first feature film ever to be shot entirely inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. She has directed two other feature films and a 2005 documentary.

The film, in Arabic with English subtitles, is now playing at the Music Box Theatre.

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