Haifaa Al-Mansour crafts a story that’s part family drama and part parable of female activism, set in Saudi Arabia.
By Glenn Kenny
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Women in Saudi Arabia were granted the right to drive in 2018. In “The Perfect Candidate,” a film made in 2019 that is only now being released here, Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani), a physician in a small town, is seen driving purposefully to destinations that include an airport. At that airport, she is refused permission to board a plane because her travel permit has expired. Said permit needs the approval of a guardian for renewal.
That’s correct. Maryam — who is an expert diagnostician and deft surgeon, an excellent driver and a fully grown adult — can’t get on an airplane without her father’s permission.
As it happens, Maryam still lives with that father, as do her sisters: Selma (Dae Al Hilali), a wedding videographer, and Sara (Nora Al Awad), a teenager who seems like more of a traditionalist than her older siblings.
The father, Abdulaziz (Khalid Abdulraheem), an oud player and recent widower, is a relatively liberal patriarch, which stands to reason: His wife, the girls’ mother, was also a musician, something frowned upon in substantial segments of their culture.
Maryam’s decision to run for a position in municipal government is a pragmatic move: She wants to have a proper road built to her clinic. The current dirt road is often inaccessible because of flooding. Her candidacy fosters scandal as Maryam learns the ins and outs of social media campaigning and public speaking.
Story developments that would seem pat in a Western-made film are treated as miraculous here. But “The Perfect Candidate,” co-written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour (“Wadjda,” “Nappily Ever After”), is as much a family drama as it is a parable of feminist activism — and is all the better for it. The movie’s lived-in acting and unhurried pace make it a better-than-palatable viewing experience.
The Perfect Candidate
Not rated. In Arabic, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes. In theaters. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.
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