Written by: Robin C. Farrell | July 9th, 2021
Scales (Shahad Ameen, 2019) 3 out of 4 stars.
Very rarely does one come across a truly unique interpretation of the mermaid mythos. They usually fall into a trope of one sort: the sweet, feminine ideal; the monstrous siren; or some unsettling mix of the two. However, in Scales, Saudi Arabian writer/director Shahad Ameen explores the mermaid concept in a fascinating new way. Here is a depiction of mermaids as nightmares and deep-seated beliefs made uncomfortably real; not in their on-screen presence, but their significance to the characters who drive the film.
The story, or what there is of one, takes place in a dystopian landscape and commences with the disturbing ritual in which the citizens of a fishing village must sacrifice one daughter to the “sea maidens.” This sequence is surprisingly harsh, given that there’s no overtly explicit gore. The point is made, however, and your mileage may vary, depending on how unsettled you are by the sight (let alone suggestion) of wailing infants submerged into the ocean.
However, Muthana (Yagoub Alfarhan, Zero Distance) can’t bring himself to go through with killing his own child and so rescues her from the clutches of one such sea maiden. His decision affects the village for the next several years and the girl, Hayat (Basima Hajjar), grows up as an outcast, marked by scales from the sea maiden’s touch, and doomed to eventually be sacrificed all over again. Far from passive, though, Hayat is capable and intrepid. Saved by her father’s moment of mercy, she lives to cause change and disrupt the order and hierarchy of the village. Not without struggle, though. Claiming her right to even exist is no easy feat in this world.
Ameen crafts powerful visuals and captivating sound design, although the sound mixing betrays that much of the dialogue and sound effects may have been recorded separately and in enclosed spaces. Hajjar’s performance is stunning and drives much of the film’s efficacy. The middle of the film meanders slightly, which may leave an audience wondering where the story is headed, and all the pieces may appear slightly disjointed until the ending, despite the ambiguity found even there. The payoff, however, is well worth it.
Scales is marketed as a “feminist parable,” which it absolutely is, established early on by the obvious and conventional gender roles, but beyond that, further metaphor may seem muddled; again, until the last few minutes. As the details click into place and meaning seeps into everything that has come before, it becomes clear how deeply clever and feminist this narrative really is. This is one you really need to watch all the way through to appreciate and fully understand.