The Perfect Candidate keeps the stakes low and can be cloying at times, but its story is necessary.
Haifaa Al-Mansour, whose 2012 feature debut Wadjda was the first film completely shot in Saudi Arabia (and became the nation’s first Oscar submission), returns with another look at patriarchal prejudice in The Perfect Candidate, the story of a female doctor who turns to politics. Living in a suburban town somewhere near Riyadh, Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani) bids to become the local council representative in order to fix the rundown road leading to her clinic, but this stirs up controversy among the many townsfolk who consider her unsuitable due to her gender. “People won’t succeed if their chief is a woman,” one of Maryam’s elderly patients barks at her from his hospital bed. It’s a sentiment echoed within her own community, where she’s seen as a troublemaker for even trying to be successful, in either medicine or politics.
It’s clear that Al-Mansour feels compelled here to call attention to the issues Muslim women face in Saudi Arabia, particularly the lack of ownership over their own lives and futures, and Maryam represents a progressive example of someone unwilling to accept the status quo, resulting in a profound uphill struggle. The Perfect Candidate addresses the necessity of conflict in achieving change — although it also wisely suggests that battles often have to be fought on your opponents’ terms. Her self-made electioneering provides insight into the cultural makeup of the region, as the campaign trail at one point leads to a fashion show exhibiting various styles of traditional Muslim dress. But as was also the case in Wadjda, the approach to social realism is a bit too cuddly; there’s never the suggestion that Maryam is in any real peril from being so outspoken. Disappointingly, there’s also a cloying scene in which a previously hardened, reactionary figure champions her cause, which rings completely false. But these are mostly minor foibles, and even if Al-Mansour plays to an audience she knows is already on her side, The Perfect Candidate is still telling a story that ought to be told.
Originally published as part of London Film Festival 2019 | Dispatch 3.