THE PERFECT CANDIDATE – Review by Jennifer Merin

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The Perfect Candidate is Saudi filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour’s compelling drama about a woman physician’s plight to get the impassable dirt road leading to the local hospital paved so that patients can get to the emergency ward in time for their lives to be saved. Because her appeals to the authorities are consistently denied — or worse yet, ignored — Dr. Maryam Alsafan (Mila Al Zahrani) decides that she will campaign for election to the town council with road repair as the sole issue presented on her platform. 

Her fighting spirit is further fueled by the fact that many male patients who are in dire need of medical treatment refuse to let her touch them because she is a woman. The town’s men’s ridicule and denial of her candidacy is infuriating — but she is not to be deterred.

In following the good doctor’s political campaign, the ever engaging film and its slow burn story reveal a great deal about the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which Saudi women, while adhering to the rules of hijab, effectively take a stand against the legally imposed gender discrimination and behavioral restrictions imposed on them by their fathers and husbands who — with protection of the law and support of cultural customs — self-righteously control their actions.

As written, Dr. Maryam Alsafan is a calmly courageous character, and Mila Al Zahrani brings the good doctor to life with a brave and committed performance that garners great empathy. 

Writer/director Haifaa Al-Mansour is a force to be reckoned with in the Saudi cinema scene. Her Wadjda (2012) received wide critical acclaim, and her Mary Shelley (2017) was featured on AWFJ.org as our Movie of the Week.   

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).