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.

Blu-ray Review

Limited Edition Blu-ray Review: Under the Shadow (Dir. Babak Anvari, 2016)

In Two & Two (2011) – Babak Anvari’s BAFTA-nominated short allegorical film – a teacher (Bijan Daneshmand) attempts to re-educate his male pupils with some basic arithmetic, claiming that what they have always been taught is no longer true. The writer-director packs quite the punch with very little exposition and a whole lot of nuance when depicting the absurdity of an authoritarian regime/dictatorship. Which all bodes well when your next film – and first feature – is an effective little horror (and would become BAFTA award-winning in its own right). It is also a lovely touch to have that same actor play the University Dean who is responsible for shattering Shideh’s dreams of becoming a Doctor.

Under the Shadow is set in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and Shideh (Narges Rashidi) can no longer study medicine having been removed for her political beliefs. We are never party to what exactly her transgression is but suffice to say with the mention of ‘radical left groups’ she was – and probably still is – against the war that is currently waging in her country.

Once her chador is removed, we can ‘see’ some of her transgressions. Her hair cut (in a bob style), dress (westernised), and her autonomy around her home; the partnership with her husband, exercising to Jane Fonda. she’s also the only woman in the building who drives. This is a ‘modern’ woman, oppressed by external tradition and reduced to the confines of her four walls, and even those are not so secure with the shelling, daily explosions and air raids which can send residents into a panic at any given moment.

When her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) receives his draft notice, Shideh is left with her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) as, one by one, all her neighbours pack up and move onto safety. The exacerbating factor a shell crashing through the roof of their building, killing the elderly resident within and leaving a gaping hole. The hole is covered with a sheet which appears to undulate in the wind like a bodily organ, flapping in and out like a heartbeat. A visual metaphor of a damaged culture, while the cracks in the ceiling – it can be argued – relate to Shideh’s psyche. Ever increasingly isolated, Shideh and Dorsa begin to experience things which may be the product of a child’s imagination or something altogether more supernatural.

Djinn is a malevolent spirit which has its history in Early Arabia and then later in Islamic mythology and theology. An entity that travels on the wind until it finds somebody to possess. Often dismissed as a superstitious belief, the spirit is reported to enjoy the souls of children (much like Krampus in European culture, or el Cuco in Latin America). It may explain Dorsa’s fever or not, after all Shideh was also once a child. Evil wants to hurt them alleges one neighbour while another, Mrs. Fakur (Soussan Farrokhnia), attempts to allay her friend’s fear: “people can convince themselves of anything if they want to”.

Tight framing adds to the oppressive atmosphere as mother and daughter’s fear and anxiety builds. Tension is slow-burning, and jump scares are few and far between yet effective when they do occur. There’s no score (music is only played during opening and closing credits) so is reliant upon diegetic noise and whistling winds. We’re never sure of the time of day given the constantly closed curtains and disturbed sleep patterns.

What appears to be mere moments gives the impression of hours. As people leave we can assume the passing of days and weeks yet the costumes of the leads mostly remain the same. Natural and artificial also play havoc with this, along with the production design: one location, open doors, hallways, and reflections in the television mean the constantly moving camera plays tricks with the eyes – was that something moving or not? Shideh’s lip is bruised from the constant biting, insecurity, anxiety, stress. Like all amazing genre films – nothing is ever quite how they appear and this film is all the better for it building beautifully the general sense of unease.

It seems apt that when she is preparing to fight, Shideh’s weapon of choice is a pair of scissors – as if tethered to a more domesticated past, her own mother’s apron strings or the chador in this instance. While the malevolent being appears to be set on persecution – even referring to the character as a ‘whore’ and ‘bad parent’ – it’s important to remember that Djinn is not inherently evil or good, and this entity could, at some point, be Shideh’s mother from beyond the grave.

A matriarch disappointed that her daughter will no longer practice medicine but needs to save her by forcing her to leave the building. Think back to the picture frame which houses Shideh’s mother’s portrait, the fractured glass obscuring the image within, it now laying down on the shelf hidden from view – but before that, the draped material serving as a backdrop in the photo is identical to the chador the entity embodies itself within. This reading further strengthens the mother-daughter links throughout, and the expectations a patriarchy levels at women, generally, but more so during the kind of regime in Tehran of the 80s.

As a first feature, Under the Shadow wears its influences well: Polanski’s apartment trilogy (Repulsion [1965], Rosemary’s Baby [1969], The Tenant [1976]) with a sprinkling of Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water via a domestic social realist drama in the ilk of Abbas Kiarostami and Asghar Farhadi. It’s a rich and visually arresting film which checks all of the above as well as featuring, at its heart, a really affecting horror fable. A 1980s Tehran-set horror film filmed entirely in Farsi – the first of its kind.

Finally, it has been given the kind of release it deserves courtesy of Second Sight that includes plenty of extra features, including five new interviews with the filmmaker, cast and crew, as well as a lively commentary between Director Anvari and film critic Jamie Graham, in which every aspect of the film’s genesis, production and release is covered.


Two & Two (8:48) – Babak Anvari’s BAFTA-nominated short film shown in its entirety. It’s the one extra which can be watched before the main feature.

Escaping the Shadow (23:53) – A long interview with Anvari who begins with his own childhood nightmares growing up in 80s Iran before his move to Britain. He talks at length about the filmmaking process, his cast, shooting in Jordan and expands upon things mentioned in the commentary. He’s a delightful interviewee, and while it is not the most imaginatively filmed featurette, Anvari’s charisma shines through.

Within the Shadow (12:52) – Star of Under the Shadow, Narges Rashidi discusses her own childhood in Iran and Germany and career now she is LA based. She describes the film as a ‘beautiful gift’, and again, static camera and a by-the-book interview reveals an excitable and rather lovely person.

Forming the Shadow (16:11) – Lucan Toh and Oliver Roskill talk all things ‘producer’, how they met Babak, the script, the film’s potential and their brief disappointment at not having to sell the film when it premiered at Sundance. A lot of their anecdotes are repeated in the commentary track.

Shaping the Shadow (13:29) – Anvari’s close collaborator and DoP Kit Fraser talks about his involvement from before the script was even written.

Limited Edition Contents – This set is limited to just 2000 copies, comes in a rigid slipcase featuring new artwork by Christopher Shy and with a soft cover book with new essays by Jon Tovison and Daniel Bird (unavailable at time of review). Plus behind-the-scenes photos, concept illustrations, and a poster with new artwork.