Saudi director Shahad Ameen’s mesmerizingly bleak fable Scales accomplishes something many films attempt but generally bungle: It tells a highly symbolic tale while conveying recognizable human emotions. That’s hard to do when everything seems to operate on the level of metaphor, since we usually recognize that what we’re watching isn’t exactly real. To be sure, Scales (which opens in limited theatrical release today) embraces its own unearthliness from the very start. It begins with a title informing us that the setting is a desolate island in a dead sea, where a group of villagers survives by annually sacrificing a daughter from each family.
That’s a pretty pointed setup. It not only informs us that we’ll be watching an allegory but also pretty much tells us what it’s an allegory for. Maybe that’s the trick — to get the basic idea out of the way quickly. Scales, which has been billed (not incorrectly) as a feminist fable, captivates us not with its politics or its deeper meanings but through its expert visual storytelling and its tense, fantastical atmosphere.
In the film’s opening ritual, a father gives his baby daughter, Hayat, to the sea only to have a crisis of conscience and yank her back out — though not before the girl’s foot is briefly grabbed by a mysterious, scaly hand underwater. When we meet Hayat again years later (now played by Basima Hajjar), that foot is covered in scales. Her father’s failure to properly sacrifice his daughter has led to his being forced to do menial labor for the fishermen of the village and to his family being treated as outcasts.
Hayat, however, manages to gain favor with these same fishermen when she drags ashore a so-called sea maiden — basically a giant mermaid, one of the creatures to whom these girls are being sacrificed — and then slaughters it in front of them. Now, she is invited to join the men on their hunting expeditions. And these guys aren’t fishing for tuna; they’re fishing for mermaids, the islanders’ sole source of sustenance. Of course, we now understand who these sea maidens are: They are the daughters of the village who were given to the waters and have now come back as voiceless, mythical creatures only to be killed by their own people. It’s a shattering idea, and we sense that the villagers have buried their regret and grief under mountains of pain and grit.
Much of the story of Scales is conveyed wordlessly, perhaps because Hayat is herself part sea maiden thanks to her long-ago encounter as a baby. The lunar landscape, the dusty village with its dark, smoky interiors, the eerily placid sea shimmering marvelously in the moonlight — the film’s textures, all shot in black-and-white, enchant us with their spectral beauty. The soundtrack brims with the gentle yet ceaseless splash of waves, the creak of wooden boats, the scrape of feet against dry, hard earth. Ameen seems less interested in sending messages than in providing a cinematic experience. A close-up of a giant fin being dragged across hard, cracked earth may not explain anything, but it still says more than any expository dialogue ever could.
It’s not so much that the premise of Scales can’t hold up to scrutiny (really, what myth could?); it’s that the lingering questions this enigmatic little fable leaves us with actually enhance our understanding of it. Hayat gains acceptance through her willingness to destroy another girl in a similar position. Her tragic dilemma seems inescapable, given that the village will presumably starve otherwise. But because she straddles both worlds, Hayat starts to view this supposed reality from the other side. She understands something ineffable that can’t easily be put into words. That’s where the film’s mystery justifies itself. Scales doesn’t give us answers because life itself so rarely does.
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