So, you’re watching “Wadjda,” the winning new film by writer-director Haifaa Al Mansour, and you’re noting how it shares classic cinematic DNA with auteurs from Vittorio De Sica to Pee-wee Herman; you’re cheering on its nervy young heroine, played in an astonishingly assured debut by Waad Mohammed; and you’re altogether enjoying yet another example of humanistic world cinema at its best.
And then it hits you: You’re seeing a world on screen that, until now, has been largely hidden from the filmgoing world at large. Because in addition to being a terrific garden-variety coming-of-age film, “Wadjda” happens to be the first feature-length movie ever made in Saudi Arabia — all the more notable in that it’s been made by a woman, about a young girl chafing against the religious and social strictures of a kingdom literally shrouded in sexual anxiety, misogyny and severe repression. The story of “Wadjda” — in which Mohammed plays the title character, a 10-year-old schoolgirl living in a suburb of Riyadh — is absorbing enough. But just as compelling are the myriad visual and textural details of modern life in Saudi Arabia, a place of dun-colored monotony, cruelty and hypocrisy, as well as prosperity, deep devotion and poetry.
But don’t lay any of that heavy-handed jive on Wadjda, who wears Converse Chuck Taylors to her Muslim girls’ school, refuses to wear her head covering and longs to buy a bicycle so that she can race (and beat) her best friend, a boy named Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani). Wadjda lives in a traditional household with her mother (the gorgeous Saudi television star Reem Abdullah) and a father who visits only occasionally as he contemplates taking a second wife. Between her mother’s warnings about preserving her virginity until she’s married off and the scoldings she regularly receives from a harsh school principal, Wadjda’s often seen silently trying to make usable sense of the negative messages that bombard her about her own worth and potential.
But what her schoolmates take without question — or subvert with surreptitious dabs of blue nail polish and assignations — Wadjda simply takes in stride, never allowing her inherent sense of purpose and autonomy to be sideswiped by the haters, whether they’ve hijacked her culture, her religion or a relational structure in which only men are named on the family tree. Al Mansour keeps “Wadjda” simple, never gussying up the story with showy visual flourishes or heavy-handed polemic. Rather, she allows the film to radiate from the implacable force of her unforgettable lead character, played by Mohammed with quiet focus and steady-eyed integrity.
As infuriating as it can be to realize how an entire Saudi economy has developed predicated on keeping women immobile and dependent, “Wadjda” doesn’t leave the audience feeling hopeless. Indeed, Al Mansour suggests quite forthrightly that her home country might be in the throes of some kind of glacial progress — thanks not only to new generations of Wadjdas, but Abdullahs as well. The most radical and cheering message of “Wadjda” is that a change isn’t just possible, but inevitable. Insha’Allah.
PG. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row. Contains thematic elements, brief mild profanity and smoking. In Arabic with subtitles. 97 minutes.