Middle Eastern movie censors have a perennial blind spot: They’ll accept films that are critical of Islam or political regimes when the subjects are children, as if these allegories had nothing to do with grownups. Iranian filmmakers have exploited this loophole for years, and Saudi Arabia’s Haifaa Al-Mansour does so expertly in “Wadjda.”
On the surface, it’s about a plucky 10-year-old girl who wants a bicycle and uses ingenuity and hard work to raise money to buy one. Yet it’s really about the crushing future that awaits Wadjda (endearing newcomer Waad Mohammed) when she grows to womanhood.
That future has just begun to encroach on her. A classmate her age has just been married to a 20-year-old man. Their teacher orders the elementary school girls to stay inside, because construction workers on a nearby building can see them at recess. Wadjda’s affectionate but extremely conservative mother (Reem Abdullah) urges her to wear a head scarf outside the house and refuses to take a job at a pharmacy because its female employees don’t cover themselves head to toe.
Wadjda has one pal who doesn’t judge her: Young Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), whose attachment to his bike inspires her to want one, too. She realizes she’s likeliest to raise the money by winning top prize in a Qu’ran recitation contest; in a neat twist, she’s asked to repeat a passage about what happens to people who claim to be true adherents to Islam but question dogma in private.
Al-Mansour is the first Saudi woman to direct a feature film. (If the show business magazine Variety is to be believed, “Wadjda” is the first Saudi feature of any kind.) In the world she depicts, men seldom appear but always exert an influence, as fearsome political candidates on billboards or uneducated people who assert their authority over educated women. Wadjda’s father, disappointed by his wife’s failure to bear a son, casually contemplates divorcing her and can’t understand why she’s angry.
The women come off as anxious, powerless (no doubt they are) and superstitious: Wadjda’s mom tells her never to leave the Qu’ran open on a table, because “the devil will spit into it.” (Her teacher says something similar.) The healthiest people in this environment are spunky Wadjda and open-minded Abdullah, though we wonder how long he’ll be able to treat her as an equal in Saudi society.
Her dream of owning a bicycle seems especially poignant, especially when older women insist bikes are unsuitable for girls. A bike would give her the same freedom of movement as her playmate, but that freedom can last only a short time: In Saudi Arabia, women are forbidden to drive a car.
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