Movie review: ‘Wadjda’ gently pushes against Saudi restrictions
If the drama “Wadjda” is any indication, the restrictions on daily life for women in Saudi Arabia are onerous and annoying — but repressing the vitality of a young girl, even in this stringently Muslim society, is practically impossible.
Wadjda (played by Waad Mohammed) is the girl in question, a 12-year-old who — in a school where boring black is the norm — wears Chuck Taylors with purple laces under her abaya. She gets in trouble at school for selling braided necklaces to her classmates and frequently finds herself in the office of the principal, Ms. Hussa (played by the Saudi-born international actress Ahd).
Wadjda has a dream: to buy a fancy bicycle from the local toy shop. She faces two obstacles. One is that bicycles are deemed unladylike in Saudi Arabia, a danger to the girl’s virginity. (Something about the bar in the middle, I guess.) The other is that the bike costs 800 riyals (around $215), more than Wadjda’s mother (Reem Abdullah) can afford, particularly as she’s worried that her husband (Sultan Al Asaaf) may soon abandon her for a second wife.
Undaunted, Wadjda discovers a potential solution: a school Koran recitation contest, with a top prize of 1,000 riyals. Wadjda, always too rebellious to study her scripture, must convince Ms. Hussa that she will buckle down and behave — but she’ll do it to secure that bike. (A digression: Why is it always a bike? Think back to Vittorio Di Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief” or the Dardennes brothers’ “The Kid With the Bike,” two other examples of the bicycle becoming a global symbol of personal freedom.)
“Wadjda” is billed as the first feature film to be made entirely in Saudi Arabia, and it’s also groundbreaking in that a female writer-director, Haifaa Al Mansour, made it.
Al Mansour’s film gently but decisively goes behind the veil of Saudi female society, showing the pressures internally and externally that keep women subservient to men in ways great and small. She also shows, through Wadjda’s unconquerable optimism and the close bond between her and her mother, how Saudi women may also hold the key to poking holes in those cultural walls.
“Wadjda” finds its success in the small triumphs of its characters’ lives — and in the grander victory that such a movie can introduce these Saudi women to the wider world.