‘Scales’ Review: A Sensual Fable With a Feminist Bent

In a craggy coastal village seemingly isolated from the rest of the world, a group of torch-wielding men prepare for a gruesome ritual: They must sacrifice their daughters to appease the mermaid-like creatures that roam the sea. Despite the pressure to follow community guidelines, so to speak, Muthana (Yagoub Alfarhan) saves his firstborn before she sinks too deep into the black waters.

And thus begins the fable-esque story of Hayat (Basima Hajjar), a 12-year-old girl who comes to subvert the fearful, patriarchal customs that dictate the dystopian world of “Scales.” Written and directed by the Saudi Arabian filmmaker Shahad Ameen, this feature debut is aesthetically tantalizing, presented in eerily glistening monochrome. Just as Hayat fends off another round of sacrifice and proves herself by hunting down a sea creature, a scab on her foot grows larger and begins look an awful lot like fish scales. The movie hints at the possibility that the village’s lost girls are transformed into these mystical beings.

Ameen prioritizes symbolism teeming with sensory spirit over plot-based narrative, which ultimately renders her attempt at making a political statement too opaque and disjointed to have much of an impact. She gestures at the plight of women in Saudi Arabia, also bound by archaic traditions, but her critique fails to penetrate the surface of this issue.

Still, the film’s visual elements — Hayat’s cloud of unruly black hair, the bone-dry rocky cliffs hovering over the village — are palpable, bewilderingly engrossing and complemented by a spine-tingling sound design full of creaks, drips and scratches. By the end, the film feels more mysterious than ever, a frustrating conclusion that may very well be the point.

Not rated. In Arabic, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 14 minutes. In theaters.

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