It seems to me that these days, every second art film is compared to Italian Neorealism and usually to Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. Haifaa Al-Mansour’s film Wadjda is finally a film that warrants this comparison, both in terms of style and quality; not only because of the bicycle theme.
The first ever Saudi-Arabian feature film to be directed by a woman, tells the story of Wadjda (played by first-timer Waad Mohammed in one of the best child-performances you will ever see), a 10 year-old girl who, despite society’s expectations, is determined to get a bike and race her friend Abdullah. Wadjda is a fascinating character: rebellious, mischievous, witty and inventive in finding ways to get her hands on the money for the bike. Her story is incredibly charming, engaging, moving and at times very funny.
In the background (and crucially not forced upon the audience) of all this are the political and ideological issues the film deals with. Wadjda is a deeply feminist film and critical of the Arab society: Wadjda can’t have a bike because she is a girl; in a subplot, her father takes a second wife, because her mother won’t bear him a son. The film does this extremely rare and difficult thing of simultaneously telling a compelling, entertaining and moving story while also raising important issues.
Like Bicycle Thieves, Wadjda is slow-paced, firmly rooted in reality (with a spark of fantasy thrown in) and is told from a child’s perspective. Most importantly, like Bicycle Thieves, Wadjda is a brilliant, thought-provoking piece of cinema, which is worth seeking out.