(2019) Drama (Music Box) Mila Al Zahrani, Dhay, Nora Al Awad, Khalid Abdulraheem, Shafi Alharthy, Tareq Ahmed Al-Khaldi, Khadeeja Mua’th, Rakan Abdulrahman, Nojoud Ahmed, Naser Al Algeel, Saeed Almana, Ahmad Alsulaimy, Reem Fahad, Bandar Hadadi, Bandar Alkhudair, Hamad Almuzainy, Ismaee Nasser, Muhammad Shaman, Abdullah Ateeg, Reema Mohammed. Directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an enigma to Western minds. While it remains one of the most pro-Western governments in the Middle East, its government remains at times painfully repressive of women, although it did lift the ban on them driving by themselves in 2018 – not even two years ago. Lifting the veil, so to speak, on the lives of women in the Kingdom is no easy matter.
But who better to do so than Al-Mansour, who was the first Saudi woman ever to direct a feature film with the wonderful Wadjda back in 2012. Her protagonist, Dr. Maryam Alsafan (Al Zahrani) has a medical degree and works at a small hospital in a small town near Riyadh. She is constantly belittled by male colleagues, and encounters an elderly patient (Almuzainy) who refuses treatment by a female doctor. When Maryam refuses to back down, her hospital administrator (Hadadi) orders that the man be treated by the male nurses.
Back at home, she helps her sisters Selma (Dhay) and Sara (Al Awad) prepare a Ramadan meal for their father Abdulaziz (Abdulraheem), one of the country’s most gifted oud players. He is still mourning the untimely death of their mother, a beautiful wedding singer whose unusual choice of vocation (for Saudi women, unusual) had made things difficult at times, particularly for the sensitive Sara who disapproves of anything that might bring scrutiny down on the little family.
With Abdulaziz leaving on a national tour, Maryam uses the opportunity to attend a medical conference in Dubai where she is more likely to be noticed and find herself a new, more prestigious job. But there’s a problem; as an unmarried Saudi woman, she needs the permission of her father to travel, and his signature is apparently out of date. Stuck at the airport, desperately trying to get approval to fly to Dubai and with her father unreachable, she tries a cousin (Alsulaimy) to fix the problem. The trouble is, the supercilious administrative assistant won’t let Maryam see him unless she is planning on running for a municipal council office, and she grumpily declares that she is and then is told that her cousin isn’t willing to break the law on behalf, but she decides to make a serious run at it, even though she is told that she doesn’t have a chance in hell of defeating the incumbent. With the support of Selma, an ebullient wedding photographer, and the surly resentment of her younger sister Sara, who remembers the difficulties her mom’s profession brought on the family,
While the movie is ostensibly a drama, it is lighthearted enough so that there’s never a sense of gloom or hopelessness. Things are changing in Saudi Arabia and, apparently, even women themselves seem to think that progress might be taking place too quickly. We see the ladies taking off their niqab – a mask-like veil that only allows the eyes to be seen – in their homes, and gathering in gender-segregated halls in western dress, something unthinkable not so long ago.
This isn’t the kind of political underdog film that Frank Capra might have made; one gets the sense that Al-Mansour has to tread a very tricky line in order not to be overly critical of her government (she isn’t) while allowing the changes to be celebrated, yet there is certainly an underlying feeling that more needs to be done. At times the way women are treated is positively medieval.
Both Al Zahrani and Dhay are wonderful performers; Al Zahrani makes Maryam a force of nature when she gets a head of steam going, although early on in the film she is fairly subservient. Dhay, though, is a remarkable burst of fresh air, so joyful and supportive that you’ll want to be her sister too. g
At times, the story moves along at a snail’s pace and there is little in the way of dramatic tension, which you wouldn’t think for a movie with the kind of issues this one raises. It feels virtually sedentary, but perhaps that would have been too much to ask of a Saudi female filmmaker; I imagine she would have to tread fairly lightly if she wants to continue making movies in her own country (although she has established a career in the States as well by now). There are some delightful moments and others that are pedantic; they about even each other out. So, not the triumph that Wadjda was, but certainly not a failure either.
REASONS TO SEE: Al Zahrani is a formidable presence and Dhay injects much vitality into the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times it lacks dramatic tension.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some misogyny on display.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the official Saudi entry in the Best International Film category for the 92nd Academy Awards last spring.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews, Metacritic: 71/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saudi Women’s Driving School
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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