More lacerating because her touch is so delicate, Haifaa Al-Mansour, the first woman to make a Saudi Arabian feature with her stunning 2012 debut Wadjda, delivers a razor sharp look at women’s lives in modern Saudi Arabia with her ironically titled The Perfect Candidate.
We meet Dr. Maryam Alsafan (Mila Al Zahrani) in a busy hospital where a bloodied and injured man on a stretcher refuses to let a woman physician even touch let alone treat him. Worse, the hospital authorities side with the patient. In another humiliation, because of a lapsed permit, Alsafan is prevented from boarding a flight to Dubai in order to attend a medical conference where she hopes to land a better job. Frustrated but determined to prove herself capable, she sets her sights on getting the muddy road leading into her hospital fixed. She decides to run for office with the road repair as her sole focus. The film sets up Alsafan’s candidacy with a darkly comic, absurdist tone, more absurd because of the too-real plight of women in Saudi Arabia. Thanks to legal and cultural sexism, Alsafan’s campaign doesn’t appear to stand a chance. Then suddenly, surprisingly, it starts to gain momentum.
Al-Mansour deftly creates a balance between Maryam’s home and work lives. She lives with her independent, caring sisters, Selma (Dae al-Hilali) and Sara (Nora al-Awadh) and their widowed father Abdulaziz (Khalid Abdulraheem), a musician who respects his daughters enough to let them forge their own paths despite his concerns for their safety and well being. All four are still grieving the death of their beloved mother and wife, a singer. It is her memory, in spirit and in song, that haunts this quietly powerful film.