(Criterion/VOD) 444 days. That’s how long it had been since I’d been in a theater. I’m finally fully vaccinated, so yesterday I rode the bus for the first time in almost as long to visit the Music Box Theatre to see the only film I could catch there: Haifaa Al-Mansour’s THE PEFECT CANDIDATE. Thanks to the Chicago Transportation Authority, I arrived late. The lobby was empty, apart from one employee who glanced at the ticket on my phone and instructed me to leave on my mask at all times during the film.

I walked into the theater which, under normal conditions, can house over a thousand people. I stumbled through the darkness, trying to seek out my favorite seat, only to find it roped off to enforce proper social distancing. I found the closest seat with some leg space and settled in, trying to catch up with the film.

A few minutes later my eyes had adjusted, and I realized I was the sole person there.

Granted, this was a mid-afternoon screening of a two-year-old feminist Saudi Arabian film (just now receiving a U.S. release), but still. This was the first time I’d ever been the lone viewer for a Music Box screening, much less for a film playing in the main theater. It’s a miracle they’re still operating, but I’m glad they are.

If you aren’t familiar with Haifaa Al-Mansour, she’s often cited as ‘Saudi Arabia’s first female filmmaker’. WADJDA (2012) was her breakthrough film, but she’s also helmed American films such as MARY SHELLEY (2017) and NAPPILY EVER AFTER (2018). THE PERFECT CANDIDATE is the first film of hers I’ve seen, and I’m quite excited to dive into her back-catalog.

THE PERFECT CANDIDATE is about a woman doctor in a small Saudi Arabian town, Maryam, who lives with her father — a recent widow and musician — and her two sisters, and she aspires for more. The street leading to the hospital she works at isn’t paved and is a consistent mess — people are constantly being wheeled through mud — and incoming patients often outright refuse her, even if they require emergency care, solely because she’s a woman.

Due to a confluence of religious, bureaucratic, and patriarchal issues, she’s unable to attend a medical conference in Dubai, which she’d hoped would serve as a way to work her way into a better position, and due to similar religious, bureaucratic, and patriarchal issues, she ends up inadvertently applying to run for election to govern the town.

What follows is a relatively straight-forward, definitely disheartening, activist film that completely hammers home the gender inequality in Saudi Arabia while still being a thoughtful portrait of a family trying to repair themselves after the sudden death of their mother. Al-Mansour inserts a number of deft character touches, such as Maryam’s brand-new car, which she retains the plastic on the seats, but the car’s wheel wells are covered in mud because of the shoddy road. The sister dynamics are especially nuanced, with the younger sister outright rejecting her older sister’s attempts to make a difference, and the older sister being a savvy, confident, semi-supportive entrepreneur working within ‘the system’.

Was this film the one I imagined would be my inaugural post-vaccinated filmgoing experience? No, but I’m glad it was. It represents everything I’ve missed about cinema in the pandemic: the ability to walk blindly into a tale of another space and then leave the theater feeling altered.