In 'Wadjda', it's about the bike for a young Saudi girl
05:00 AM, Sep 12, 2013
A green bicycle is the vehicle that draws viewers down the byways of a repressive culture in the deeply affecting Wadjda (***½; rated PG; opening Friday in select cities).
It’s a groundbreaking film on a couple of levels: The first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, it was made by that nation’s first female director, Haifaa Al Mansour.Wadjda is a winning and wonderfully moving tale of an endearing 10-year-old girl, living in a suburb of Riyadh, making her voice heard in a patriarchal society that seeks to silence her.
Not only is this a deftly crafted and superbly acted film, but Wadjda sheds a powerful light on what women face, starting in childhood, in an oppressive regime. However, it never comes across like a sociological lecture. Its message is clear, but told with engaging understatement.
A plucky, creative girl who subtly becomes a non-conformist rebel, Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) has the same desire as most kids around the world: to ride a bicycle. What is hard for Western audiences to absorb is why the simple act of riding a bike is anathema for girls in Islamic culture. So many accepted notions seem startlingly restrictive. “A woman’s voice reveals her nakedness,” says a teacher who chides Wadjda for laughing on the playground.
Wadjda’s determination to buy a bike and race it against the boy who lives next door, Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), is inspired during a wonderfully evocative scene where she sees a green bicycle skimming along, atop a moving car hidden by a wall. It’s a magical moment where the bike seems powered by something mystical. Wadjda is instantly smitten.
A smart, fun-loving girl with impressive entrepreneurial skills, she’s branded as undisciplined by authorities at her conservative Muslim school because of her casual defiance of traditions.
When Wadjda expresses a desire to participate in a Quran recitation contest, the principal thinks she’s gotten through to the boundary-pushing Wadjda. But Wadjda has her eye on the prize money. Her plan is to win and buy the bike of her dreams. No matter that girls do not ride bikes in Saudi Arabia.
While Wadjda practices her recitations, her mother (Reem Abdullah) faces her own challenges stemming from a patriarchal society. Her modes of transportation are equally restrictive. Women are not allowed to drive and she is dependent on a nasty, irresponsible driver she hires to get to work. Neither mother nor daughter can travel in ways that would improve their lives.
Waad Mohammed, 12, is wonderfully natural as young Wadjda, and Abdullah as her mother gives a memorably nuanced performance.
Wadjda is resolute about resisting the status quo, but in a cheeky way that is consistent with the behavior of a 10-year-old. We sense she will go on to push against social strictures as she grows up. A compassionate soul, she sees the divide between the free-wheeling world her father (Sultan Al Assaf) inhabits and the confined one of her mother.
Al Mansour has crafted a vividly multidimensional film that sidesteps predictability. She does not paint the men or boys in the film with a broad, villainous brush. Characters are believably drawn. The limitations that Saudi women must endure are depicted modestly, but powerfully. And it’s never a bitter pill the film has some charmingly humorous moments.
In her emotional tale of a child and a bike, Al Mansour also pays tribute to the 1949 Italian neo-realist classic The Bicycle Thief.
This disarming tale of a likable young girl is at once eye-opening, fascinating and profoundly poignant.