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Review: The Perfect Candidate Is a Needed, If Humdrum, Feminist Intervention

The film’s aesthetic, understandably fused with its protagonist’s dogged can-do attitude, is both the source and limitation of its power.

The Perfect Candidate
Photo: Music Box Films

Haifaa al-Mansour’s The Perfect Candidate hinges on a seemingly insignificant detail: a dirt road leading to a clinic in provincial Saudi Arabia where Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani) works as a doctor. On the way from the ambulance to her care, stretchers and wheelchairs get bogged down in the mud, wasting precious seconds. Maryam, characterized above all by her pragmatism, sees paving this short stretch of mud as an attainable improvement to her community. In a film that embraces an aesthetic of pragmatism, to such a degree that it verges on the non-aesthetic, this simple road inflates to allegorical proportions.

When Maryam’s appeal to the local authorities goes ignored, she gives up on the road, deciding to attend a conference in Dubai instead, where she hopes to advance her career. But with her travel permit now expired, she’s prevented from boarding her flight. According to Saudi law, only her male guardian—in this case her father, Abdulaziz (Khalid Abdulrhim), a well-off oud player who performs for weddings—can renew it. He’s on the road, though, touring around the country with his band, forcing Maryam to reach out to Rashid (Ahmad Alsulaimy), a former student of her father’s who has since become an influential public servant. Just to get an audience, she applies for candidacy in the municipal council. Rashid refuses to renew her travel permit but accepts the application.

The Perfect Candidate is at its strongest and most compelling when touring the inner workings of Saudi bureaucracy, not only underscoring its protagonist’s force of will, but also her readiness to exploit loopholes inside the system and adapt her plans accordingly. Across these stretches, the film’s relentlessly straightforward editing and cinematography serve to accentuate that banal, faceless, and distinctly universal environment of government offices.

Maryam decides to make the best of the situation and run a campaign on the sole plank of paving the road. With help from her sister, Salma (Dhay), a social media-savvy wedding videographer, Maryam releases a video in full hijab (she typically wears niqab in public) that goes viral. Later, when she appears on television with her face uncovered, the campaign becomes about her gender, even as she insists that that the road is her only concern.

Abdulaziz’s tour, meanwhile, goes swimmingly. His band puts on a performance for some state functionaries, who award them with an appointment as the re-established National Band. Success falls into his lap, whereas Maryam tussles with a system designed to obstruct her at every turn. He’s a sympathetic character, supportive of his daughters in the face of controversy, but his freedom to go where he pleases shows the same system functioning to his benefit. For him, roads are just roads, while for Maryam, the road comes to represent self-determination. In an understated scene, Maryam waits at a gas station while an attendant refuels her car. In Saudi Arabia, women weren’t allowed to drive unaccompanied until 2018, yet here she is, a citizen consuming her country’s most precious export.

The Perfect Candidate’s aesthetic, understandably fused with Maryam’s own dogged can-do attitude, is both the source and limitation of its power. Opting for subtle as opposed to flashy subversion, it’s ultimately so realistic, so functional, so focused on content over form, that it lacks a distinct visual style, along with any exuberance that might come with it, and never challenges our expectations. At its best, it shows how even the humblest, accidental expression of power can begin to snowball. Still, its humdrum realism may end up reinforcing futility by suggesting that only modest changes are feasible, and only by working within the status quo. Mansour’s film insists on the value of individual rather than collective initiative, and never looks beyond the tentative feminism of its middle-class milieu. In the end, whether it inspires or discourages will depend on who’s watching, and from where.

Cast: Mila Al Zahrani, Dhay, Nourah Al Awad, Khalid Abdulrhim, Ahmad Alsulaimy Director: Haifaa al-Mansour Screenwriter: Haifaa al-Mansour, Brad Niemann Distributor: Music Box Films Running Time: 104 min Rating: NR Year: 2019 Buy: Video

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