'Scales' ('Sayidat al bahr'): Film Review | Venice 2019

Venice Film Festival
The Mermaid's Tale.

A rebellious teenage girl fights back against patriarchal oppression in Saudi director Shahad Ameen's visually arresting feminist fable.

Young Saudi writer-director Shahad Ameen makes an impressively stylish splash with her debut feature Scales, a timeless magical realist fable with a contemporary feminist message. Drawing on Arabic poetry and folklore, notably the ancient Syrian legend of the sea goddess Atargatis, Ameen expands her 2013 short Eye & Mermaid into this subtly subversive critique of patriarchal power, a Saudi Arabia-Iraq-Emirates co-production which was shot in the Gulf state of Oman.

World premiering in Critics' Week at the Venice International Film Festival, Scales is another welcome addition to Saudi cinema's ongoing, heavily female-led cinematic renaissance. As a monochrome fairy-tale fantasy with deep cultural roots in the Arab world, the film's wider commercial prospects will be modest. But its high production values and universal gender-politics theme should ensure strong festival interest plus art house theatrical potential. After Venice, the pic will screen next month at the London Film Festival.

Shot on a remote stretch of Oman's rugged, visually arresting coastline, Scales takes place in a superstitious fishing village community where brutal chauvinistic tradition dictates that each family must sacrifice a baby daughter to the mysterious mermaid-like monsters that lurk in the surrounding ocean. When young Hayat is saved from a watery grave by her father Muthanaha (Yaqoub Alfarhan), her survival brings shame on her family and a curse on the whole village.

Thirteen years later, teenage Hayat (Baseema Hajjar) is still ostracized as an outsider living under constant threat of settling her outstanding debt with her life. After her mother Aisha (Fatima Al Taei) gives birth to a baby boy, Hayat's fate seems to be sealed. But instead of submitting to predestined social rules, she fights back, proving herself to the male village elders by hunting down the creatures who have kept them in fear for generations. Meanwhile, fish-like scales are slowly creeping up Hayat's legs, strongly suggesting that she may be metamorphosing into a mermaid monster herself.

With its stunning rocky landscapes and luminous monochrome visuals, Scales is a gorgeous sensory experience. A droning, fragmentary score by Mike and Fabien Kourtzer heightens this sense of sensual, otherworldly beauty. A 15-year-old big-screen novice, Hajjar also gives a commendably powerful lead performance full of expressionistic gestures and wordless, defiant brooding. For a first feature by a 31-year-old rookie director, this is all classy material.

Less impressively, Ameen is weaker on narrative substance than stylistic detail. She stirs up a rich brew of sexual politics, supernatural mystery and artfully repurposed fairy-tale subtext in the film's gripping first half, only to dissipate dramatic tension with a low-key, opaque resolution. Even at a compact 74 minutes, the plot feels skimpy, perhaps betraying its roots as an expanded short. Even so, Scales is still an original and visually ravishing oddity, while Ameen is plainly a talented auteur poised to make bigger waves as Saudi cinema continues its global resurgence.

Production companies: Image Nation Abu Dhabi, Iraqi Independent Film Central, The Imaginarium
Cast: Baseema Hajjar, Ashraf Barhoum, Yagoub Al Farhan, Fatima Al Taei, Haifa AlAgha, Hafssa Faisal
Director-screenwriter: Shahad Ameen
Producers: R. Paul Miller, Stephen Strachan, Rula Nasser
Cinematographer: João Ribeiro
Editors: Ali Salloum, Ewa Johansson-Lind, Shahnaz Dulaimy
Art director: Martin Sullivan
Music: Fabien Kourtzer, Mike Kourtzer
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Critics' Week)
Sales: Cinetic (U.S.), AGC (world)

74 minutes