Review: The Perfect Candidate (Dir. Haifaa Al Mansour, 2019)

In 2017, the ban preventing Saudi women from driving was lifted and licenses were issued on the 24th June 2018. That same year Haifaa Al Mansour began production on her fourth film The Perfect Candidate (المرشح المثالي). It is no accident that Dr. Maryam Alsafan (Mila Al-Zahrani) drives, immediately placing the film in context and telling us something about the lead protagonist. Just as Wadjda’s (2012) coveted bike was bright green, Maryam’s car is a deep petrol blue in a sea of dirty white dusty vehicles.

The good doctor wears a niqab to drive and leaves it on when doing her rounds in the hospital. There, she has to contend with sick (male) patients shouting their dissent at being examined by a woman, making a difficult job ever harder. They would rather seek treatment from less qualified male nurses than have a woman lay her hands on them. One old man screams “Don’t look into her eyes!” a comment made even more ridiculous by the fact that her eyes are the only visible parts of her face to look at.

Maryam is what her music teacher father Abdulaziz (Khalid Abdulraheem) refers to as “a lion at home and a mouse in public” and serious. Seriously sincere about her patients and the road leading up to the hospital. A burst pipe has rendered it almost impossible for patients to reach their destination and the government refuses to fund the repair. However passionate she is, Maryam is determined not to stay at Al’hana hospital. Her ambitions lie in Riyadh, so when a networking conference taking place in Dubai presents itself, along with the promise of a job opportunity – for which she is the perfect candidate – she must attend.

A problem at the airport, however, prevents her from getting on the plane. Her paperwork has expired and she must seek a male’s signature in her father’s absence (he’s on tour with his band) before being able to travel. Maryam heads straight to her cousin, he has an office in the government and will surely help her. Upon leaving, Maryam instead finds herself heading home and running for local council.

With encouragement from her sisters, Sara (Noura Al Awad) and Selma (Dhay) Maryam pulls together a campaign strategy – her main objective being the road repair, which is apparently not usually high-up on a woman’s list of priorities (we prefer flowers and children-based subjects). While fundraising activities welcome a large body of women, whether they will, or be ‘allowed’ to, vote for her remains to be seen. There’s an unexpected juxtaposing of Maryam and her father’s narrative strand – she’s finding her voice, her public lion, and he’s learning to embrace music again and sing following the death of his wife. While her father is adored for his voice and rewarded, the main goal of Maryam’s (mostly male) constituency is, unsurprisingly, shutting her up.

Maryam’s political career may end as abruptly as it begins but it’s her journey where the interest lies. Just like all the women in Al Mansour’s films – Violet (Nappily Ever After), Mary Shelley, and, of course, Wadjda – transgress societal norms in their own way, and Maryam is no different. Certainly, this film is the by-product when characters like that headstrong 12-year-old and Dr. Maryam – through their determination and intelligence – find their voice and value (beyond what they have been told) in a man’s world, navigating the choppy waters of deep-rooted misogyny and seeing land on the other side.

While a lot of The Perfect Candidate belongs to the political drama – gender politics are certainly at the heart of most films created within a place of female oppression like Saudi Arabia – this film feels more like an ode to the importance of cultural arts, perhaps even a tribute to the filmmaker’s own father, Abdul Rahman Mansour, who is a poet. Whether a conscious decision or due to her co-writer Brad Niemann’s input, the patriarch of this particular family is far gentler and more empathetic than we’re used to seeing onscreen – Maryam is never discouraged at any point by her Abi. As a result the male characters feel a lot more tangible within this narrative, with a variety of masculinities explored. It pulls from Maryam’s arc somewhat but as a result feels a little more balanced, ultimately the film begins and ends with the future. A woman. No longer hidden behind her niqab (if she so chooses).

The film’s colour palette is simple and muted save for the odd flash of tint and tone. Accompanying it, Volker Bertelmann’s string-heavy score is sweeping and rather lovely. The viola, cello and violin notes – and the oud within the diegesis – are beautifully optimistic. Even if the majority of the film doesn’t quite communicate this hope, those last scenes in the hospital certainly do. They signify a slow turning tide coming to Saudi Arabia – one petrol blue car in a sea of dirty white dusty vehicles – and with Haifaa Al Mansour at the wheel, the future of Saudi cinema is in more than capable hands.

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