Wadjda | Director Haifaa Al-Mansour | Score: 8.0
Like another pretty well known film about parents and their children, Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s drama involves a young child and a bike. It might not quite scale the heights of De Sica’s Bicycle Thief (on many critics’ top-ten-of-all-time lists, including this one), but it a deliriously entertaining and moving film unto itself, with a young child star virtually impossible not to adore..
Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is a precocious pre-teen, attending a formal, highly observant school for girls outside Riyadh, the Saudi capital. Amidst a sea of veils, dark robes and humbled minds, she stands out with a pair of jeans under her abaya and a pair of weathered, black Chuck Taylors on her feet. She’s sweet and dutiful, especially to her mother (Reem Abdullah), a beautiful woman whose husband (Sultan Al Assaf), while good-natured, is considering leaving them both for a new wife who will be able to conceive him a son, something Wadjda’s mother, damaged during Wadjda’s childbirth, can not provide.
Wadjda is smart, but also cagey. A born capitalist, she sells homemade contraband bracelets to the other girls at her school, and is constantly on the hustle with other local businesses, trying to expand her financial possibilities. When she sees and falls in love with a new bike at a local toy store, she also finally has a focus for all her considerable intelligence and guile. She enters a Koran competition, to the surprise of her somewhat beleaguered headmistress (Ahd), in order to win enough money to buy her bike, despite the fact that she lives under a strict regime that frowns mightily on girls doing anything of their own accord, including riding bikes (Wadjda is told by her mother that bike riding will ruin her ability to conceive a child, but she brushes the threat aside).
There are, in fact, a great many things Wadjda is barred from doing, including, it would seem having any kind of say in whether her father will remarry and leave them behind. Despite the oppression all around her, she happily listens to western music, walks around town without a veil and pushes the boundaries of being expelled at school. She’s not a rebel without a cause, or just another angst-filled teen striking out against authority, she’s a willful girl with a head full of dreams who sees no real cause to cut them short.
Al-Mansour, Saudi’s first female filmmaker, has certainly struggled herself in this largely segregated country (reportedly, in order to film exterior scenes, she had to be holed up in a van, as women aren’t allowed to work in the same vicinity as men), but there is nothing but exaltant joy in her frame. Some of this comes from the absolutely delightful performance of Mohammed, who brings to Wadjda a spunky irascibility that’s utterly irresistible, but a lot comes from the never-say-die spirit of her narrative. A different, harsher film could have made these same points, but in a punishing way, something that would deeply afflict the audience with indelible images of persecution and oppression — or an emotional pitch that we’d never be able to burn out of our consciousness, a la De Sica’s masterpiece; Al-Mansour’s narrative instead gives us a delightful film of wonder and hope that makes all things seem vaguely possible. In the end, Wadjda’s triumph becomes something of our own.
Image is a screen grab from the trailer.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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