Scales

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Scales
"The narrative failures of the second half are mitigated by the handsome styling and the sea maidens themselves, which retain a mysterious melancholy even after we've seen one up close."

Shahad Ameen blends mermaid myths with tales of human sacrifice and gives them a feminist twist for her atmospheric debut feature, which expands on ideas in her earlier short Eye & Mermaid.

Shot in alluring monochrome by João Ribeiro, the sharp black and white suits the austerity of this tale of a barren island where families must sacrifice a daughter to the sea maidens - some dropping their babies into the waves, while others cling on to them until they're older, a decision that causes its own agony. How the people on this rocky outcrop survive day-to-day brings with it an idea that doubles down on the psychological horror of the situation - and, given that this film is from Saudi Arabia where women still face systemic discrimination even after the relaxation of 'male guardianship' laws -  its bleak social commentary. (Although dated 2019, the film was shot in 2017 when those laws were still firmly in place.)

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Hayat (played expressively by Basima Hajjar) should have been given to the waves as a babe in arms but her father (Yaqoub Alfarhan) plucks her out before she drowns. Ostracised from the rest of the village, she is also left with a scaly skin disease on her foot and faces, with the birth of a baby brother, a second go at playing sacrifice. The first half of the film is taut, as we root for the plucky youngster, who finds a way to slip through death's fingers a second time. Ideas of metamorphosis from childhood to adulthood are given an interesting twist by the physical changes that Hayat seems to be enduring and Ameen's scathing attack on the patriarchy is never in doubt.

Ribeiro's exquisite work behind the camera - capturing the moon on the water or the beautiful desolation of the part of Oman where the film was shot - along with the watery, child-in-danger subject matter would make this a great double-bill with Lucile Hadzihalilovic's Evolution.

Ameen's spare scripting succeeds initially but her increasingly enigmatic storytelling  begins to feel patchy towards the hour mark, as the ideas so neatly set up in the beginning don't quite pay off as strongly as they should. The narrative failures of the second half are mitigated by the handsome styling and the sea maidens themselves, which retain a mysterious melancholy even after we've seen one up close. Emotionally, too, the film holds firm - giving you plenty of time to think about the full implications of a society that treats its women like the most basic of commodities and how that, in turn, has deep and disturbing consequences for everyone.

Reviewed on: 20 Mar 2020
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A young girl who was supposed to be sacrificed to the sea refuses to surrender to her fate.

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