There is a bittersweet Iranian film called “The Day I Became a Woman,” which tells three stories through the eyes of Persian women. One is an elder who squanders her life savings on a shopping trip. One is a young woman who enrages the local men when she enters a bicycle race. And one is a 9-year-old girl who plays with a neighborhood boy in the last hours before social custom requires her to hide her face from males.
Despite official government censorship, Iran has been a fount of fine cinema for decades. Ironically, that country's relatively Westernized neighbor Saudi Arabia has never produced a notable movie before the new “Wadjda,” let alone one directed by a woman.
Like “The Day I Became a Woman” and Western films such as “The Bicycle Thief” and “Breaking Away,” this delightful debut feature by a Saudi woman named Haifaa Al-Mansour uses a bicycle as a metaphor for freedom within a social circumference.
Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is an irrepressible 10-year-old girl who lives with her mother (Reem Abdullah) in a suburb of Riyadh. Wadjda's beloved but philandering father (Sultan Al Assaf) maintains a separate residence, forcing the mother to hire a surly chauffeur to drive her to work. In Saudi society, women's movements are restricted, yet at her all-girls school, Wadjda wears nimble sneakers and jeans under the drab black vestments, and she's got her eyes on a magic carpet: a green bicycle, so she can race against Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), the neighbor boy who is her closest friend.
Wadjda is a wily entrepreneur and realizes she would have enough money for the bike if she won her school's contest for memorizing and reciting the Quran.
With an artfully light touch, director Al-Mansour uses the contest as both a dramatic hook and a vehicle for exploring rifts between the word of God and the edicts of men. As Wadjda wonders why her name is trimmed from her father's family tree — and why he is considering a second wife — she also strengthens her own character and faith for the life ahead of her.
Spinning its wheels, a turbulent world needs more movies like “Wadjda.”
— Joe Williams,
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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