'Wadjda" has made history, so you'd be hearing about the film even if it weren't any good. It's the first movie filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia; it's the first made by a female Saudi director; and it's Saudi Arabia's first submission to the Oscars for best foreign language film.
Fortunately, however, it is good. More than that, it's a near-masterpiece. And this judgment is rendered without making allowance for the fact that its maker grew up in a country without a single movie theater and had to direct it from inside a van, communicating with cast and crew via walkie-talkie. "Wadjda" is simply a great film — full-stop.
The movie opens with the title character tying the purple laces of her Converse sneakers while listening to a catchy song by the American-based hipster band Grouplove. She might be a 12-year-old girl from any part of the world, except that her colorful hair barrettes are hidden under a black abaya: Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) lives in a small town outside Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Though Wadjda's schooling is very different from that with which Americans are familiar, her greatest passion is not. She desires nothing more than a bicycle with green handlebars and ribbons that just arrived at a local shop. She's saved a bit of money from selling homemade bracelets at school and asks her mom for a loan for the rest. "Have you ever seen a girl on a bike?" is her mother's (Reem Abdullah) scornful reply.
So the persistent girl decides to earn the rest of the money needed on her own. She first tries making the bracelets faster, but even at that rate, she'd be too big for the bike by the time she could buy it. Then a chance comes to make all the money at once. The slightly rebellious girl, who secretly paints her toenails and wears a (muted in color) vest over her uniform-like abaya, just has to win her school's Koran-recitation competition.
You might say, then, that this groundbreaking film is a sweet coming-of-age story about a girl who really wants to buy a bike. But it's far more compelling — and subversive — than that implies. Wadjda doesn't make many friends at school. It's hard, one supposes, when a 12-year-old has to deal with preparations for her upcoming marriage to a 20-year-old. She spends most of her "free" time with a local boy, Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani) — she partly wants the bike so she can race him.
Most of what you need to know about fundamentalist Muslim society is on screen. The boys wear comfortable white clothes to play in the park; girls are completely covered, head to toe, in black. Boys yell back and forth at each other while they play their games; girls must remain practically silent in public. As the strict school headmaster (a wonderfully nasty performance by the mononymous actress Ahd) says, "A woman's voice is her nakedness."
But keep in mind, too, that nothing is quite as it seems. Though the country does its best to extinguish all independent thought, no one can know exactly what goes on in the head of another human being.
And "Wadjda" itself is certainly the product of a clear, strong voice. The film is filled with finely composed shots that show both the beauty and the ugliness of Saudi Arabia, inside and out. It couldn't have succeeded, though, without the spirit of its star, the young Waad Mohammed. Here's hoping that appearing in this film has opened her eyes — as it should open eyes around the world — to other, liberating ways of living.
CREDITS: Written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour
RATING: PG for thematic elements, brief mild language and smoking
RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS