When a film is more interesting because of its contextual circumstances rather than for its intrinsic cinematic qualities, where exactly should the eye of the beholder land? Case in point, Saudi director Haifaa al-Mansour's Wadjda; in itself, a perfectly amiable, well-meaning but somewhat underwhelming film from a Middle Eastern cinema that is becoming progressively better known in the West. It's the story of a headstrong young girl who decides to challenge everyone's perception of her and of the roles she is supposed to take on; it reminds me of the type of story about children and their relationship with the world around them that Iranian cinema has made its own over the last few decades.

     But the fact that Wadjda was made on location in Saudi Arabia, a famously patriarchal, Muslim society where women are not allowed to pursue independent lives and careers, and written and directed by a Saudi woman, gives the film a whole other contextual importance - one that runs the risk of totally drowning its actual artistic value. The tale of the rebellious Wadjda, a stubborn tomboy who sets her sights on getting a bicycle despite society frowning on allowing girls to ride them, is given enormous grace and charm by the spunky performance of Waad Mohammed, who could be a close cousin of Marjane Satrapi's animated alter ego in Persepolis. Ms. Mohammed shows just how resilient kids can be when they will themselves to do something; here, she is stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea, that is, between her despairing mother (Reem Abdullah), forced to lose her husband due to her inability to sire him a boy, and her intimidating school headmistress (Ahd), who is a more restrictive jailer to her fellow women than a man (or, even, than the men that orbit the story) can ever be.

     Ms. al-Mansour has the setting down pat and a keen eye for her actors; hers is an agreeably modest tale, and one that is well told through the eyes of a young girl who is beginning to push at the limits of a role she was pre-assigned and is not pleased with. But that modesty is also what hampers Wadjda from becoming more than just an exotic curiosity: its engine hums rather than speeds, moving at a leisurely pace that suggests an earnest, eager exercise rather than a heartfelt, personal statement. Even given the limitations placed on Ms. al-Mansour by the rigid rules of her homeland, Wadjda is rather unimaginative and impersonal in its set-ups and pace, more functional than inspired; a perfectly regular production that may be too fragile to actually support the full weight that the context of being a Saudi film directed in Saudi Arabia by a woman has laid on it. It's unfair, but unavoidable, to compare it to another female-directed work from a closed community - Rama Burshtein's Fill the Void - and Wadjda doesn't come off as an equally affecting film. That's probably the burden of too many expectations placed on it; without them, perhaps this amiably modest film could be seen with different eyes.

Germany, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates 2012
97 minutes
Cast: Reem Abdullah, Abdullrahman al-Gohani, Ahd, Waad Mohammed
Director/writer Haifaa al-Mansour; cinematographer Lutz Reitemeier (colour); composer Max Richter; designer Thomas Molt; costumes Peter Pohl; editor Andreas Wodraschke; producers Roman Paul and Gerhard Meixner, Razor Filmproduktion, Highlook Communications Group and Rotana Studios
Screened March 7th 2014 (distributor press screening, Cinema City Alvalade 2, Lisbon)


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