‘Scales’ Review: A Visually Compelling Feminist Parable Featuring Mermaids

The position of Saudi women as second-class citizens receives a potent metaphoric visualization in Saudi helmer-writer Shahad Ameen’s parable-like debut drama, “Scales.” Revealing more through imagery than dialogue, the tale unfolds on a barren island where tradition dictates that each family sacrifice a daughter to the sea maidens to ensure the local fishermen a good catch. With its glittering black-and-white cinematography, immersive sound design, eerie score and creepy reveal, the film taps into something primal and chilling, with the taut first third particularly strong. But the narrative’s momentum and clarity dissipate in the middle and final sections even as the visuals continue to impress. Still, the boldly inventive “Scales” marks Ameen as a talent to watch.

Variance Films is releasing “Scales” in New York and Los Angeles on July 9. A wider rollout will follow. The 2019 production had a prize-winning festival run and was chosen as the Saudi entry for the best international feature Oscar.

In the harsh, dystopian world that Ameen creates, femininity is repressed and masculinity is all powerful. Women remain at home, behind closed doors, except on those full-moon nights when the ritual sacrifice is performed to the beat of drums. Bare-chested men hold blazing torches and sing on the beach as frightened young girls wade into the depths and fathers drop their swaddled female infants into the water.

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Here, boys are the privileged gender. By day, they follow their fathers to the edge of the sea, where they clean the village’s fishing boat, mend nets and practice spearing a catch. Their workspace is framed by barbed wire, a further separation of the sexes and perhaps a suggestion of the harshness and rigidity of the island’s traditions.

The film’s protagonist, rebellious 12-year-old Hayat (Basima Hajjar), is an outcast and a source of shame for her mother (Fatima Al Taei). She’s the girl who wasn’t supposed to get out of the water.

A powerful prologue shows Hayat’s father, Muthana (Yagoub Alfarhan), reclaiming her from the sea when she is just a baby. For this act, he is considered a weakling by the other men and not allowed to join the fishermen. Instead, his job is to clean, cut and distribute shares of their catch.

When Hayat’s mother gives birth to a boy, Hayat once more must face the cruel waters. But like a cat with nine lives, she returns to her father’s house, dragging her own catch. Now audiences can see exactly what was in the duffel bags that the fishermen previously delivered. A symbolic act of blooding marks the end of the film’s first third, allowing Hayat to somehow transcend her gender.

Up to this point, the film is, er, awash in provocative ideas about gender roles, tradition, repression and the wild female power of the sea. Spoiler alert: Not only are the village women mere commodities in this patriarchal society, but it appears that they are also edible ones. Unfortunately, the horrific boldness of this concept feels a tad underdeveloped in the film’s final two thirds. Also left rather rudimentary is the physical metamorphosis of Hayat, who can see fish scales on one foot and up one of her legs.

Now the village’s alpha male, Amer (Ashraf Barhoum), allows Hayat to train with the boys and sail on the fishing boat, despite the fact that some of the older men consider her bad luck. But she’s not completely comfortable in the role of hunter and refuses certain orders. In another memorable example of Ameen’s unique visual imagination, a melancholy sea maiden is trapped in the fishermen’s nets and loosed on the deck before being shot.

The final section of the film feels dream-like, with editing that defies continuity rules. Hayat ventures into the water on her own terms and returns again to her community as an agent of change. After she strikes a blow for the dignity of her sex, the sea rises over the rocky landscape as if in salute.

“Scales” marks an expansion of some of the ideas in Jeddah-born, London-trained Ameen’s prize-winning 2013 short “Eye and Mermaid.” It benefits immensely from the mesmerizing monochrome lensing of Portuguese director of photography João Ribeiro and the timeless look of its dramatic location in Musandam, Oman.

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