Music Box Films
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Haifaa Al-Mansour
Writer: Haifaa Al-Mansour, Brad Niemann
Cast: Mila Azahrani, Sara Nora Al Awadh, Dhay, Khalid Abdulrahim
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/6/21
Opens: May 14, 2021

You may be able to get gasoline in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for $2.15 a gallon, but what’s the advantage if you cannot use your car to drive to the movies? Update: As of 2018, the Saudis ended a 35-year ban on movie theaters and have begun getting the public’s enjoyment. AMC is betting that the industry will explode, expecting to put up forty additional theaters in fifteen Saudi cities. Why is this important when judging Haifaa Al-Mansour’s “The Perfect Candidate?” Because this represents change and is just one of the developments that are taking off despite the opposition by extremists who believe the movies are ungodly. (They’re right on target if they’re going to talk about some of the lemons that Hollywood churns out yearly.)

And with change comes more change. When segments of the public get new freedoms, then voices are raised in support. After all, when France and the U.S., notable by comparison with the Third World for accepting at least a near equality of women, that’s when modern feminism took hold. Countries in which women are wholly oppressed, such as in parts of the Middle East, had seen few demonstrations in favor of more freedoms.

This brings us to “The Perfect Candidate,” entered into our own 92nd Academy Award competition for Best International Film, a worthy achievement despite its failure to be nominated. Al-Mansour’s “Wadjda” in 2012 deals with a girl’s desire to win a Koran recitation competition in order to win a green bicycle, and “Mary Shelley” in 2017, finds her moving out of the Middle Eastern culture to examine the title character’s writing of “Frankenstein.” She continues to look at the role of women–this time in Riyadh and its outskirts.

Filmed by Patrick Orth on location, the film opens on Maryam (Mila Azahhrani) in a car, but sends a message up front: Hey! She’s driving! This is something women would not do until the laws changed in 2017, a harbinger of progressive things to come. Who knows? The Saudi monarchy might next allow women to go to medical school! Update: Already done. Maryam is a full-fledged doctor, the only woman with that certification in an emergency clinic that does not even have a paved road to get people quickly into the building when they most need quick help.

Her father, Abdulaziz (Khalid Abdulrahim), grieving for his wife, is a band leader whose profession is under attack by far-right radicals at the very time that women are moving ahead. Doctor or not, Maryam still need her father’s permission to travel to a conference in Dubai. Update: that has changed too. Guardians need not grant permission. Since feminist enthusiasm rises not when women are totally oppressed but when they are given some agency, Maryam becomes a candidate for her municipal council on a platform of paving the road to her clinic, raising her father’s blood pressure and raising doubts that even women would vote for her over her male opponent.

“Hope for the best” is her dad’s motto, which he states to a fellow musician on a concert tour when the orchestra is in danger of being canceled, and is likewise Maryam’s view as she runs for office. In one humorous incident she tries to get the cooperation of an elderly male patient who shouts “get away from me” when she is trying to save her life, and prefers a male nurse to fix a problem and save his life.

The dialogue is workmanlike at best. If this were a Hollywood dramedy with American actors in middle-class American sitcom situations, it could be panned. But it is not. One might get the notion that the director, who co-wrote the movie with Brad Niemann in his freshman script, is far more interested in giving her audience a narrative view of things to come in her country than in calling the shots for a complex work of artistic merit. And there’s nothing wrong with that. As cinema grows, especially given the ambition of AMC to bust the place wide open with multiplexes, we can expect Al-Mansour to develop when no longer confronted principally with educating us about Saudi cinematic progress.

You may enjoy some of the music on display as Maryam’s father leads an orchestra with the oud as principal instrument. A wedding scene near the conclusion and especially sightings of women who are among just themselves without covering their faces gives us the idea that if real progress is made and women are as equal to men as they may some day be in America, Saudi Arabia will burst forth with new ideas from a gender that until recently has been kept in the kitchen.

104 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B-
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B