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Fighting to exist
Happy Women’s History month, and happy inaugural post of Movie Night: a free weekly newsletter with a movie recommendation. Get some friends together, turn the lights down, and watch something great.
This week’s recommendation is Lingua Franca; written, directed, and acted in by Isabel Sandoval. Last week I went to the theater to check out a showing of the five live action shorts up for an Academy Award in 2022, and my favorite of the short films reminded me of Lingua Franca and compelled me to revisit this gift of a film; these are both films about women who are fighting to have history. Ala Kachuu (Take and Run, Maria Brendle, 2021) is set in Kyrgyzstan, and Lingua Franca is set here in the US, but both deal with women who struggle to assert their autonomy in a society that treats them as less-than. I recommend adding Take and Run to your watchlist as well.
The existence of great films is always a miracle. The work that goes into making them, from conception to distribution, requires hundreds (sometimes thousands) of people across a variety of skills, all united by a story that is fighting to be told. Given this, it’s difficult to imagine someone more qualified to champion any film than Isabel Sandoval.
Lingua Franca opens on Brighton Beach in Brooklyn in the early morning of the present day; we see a city that has yet to wake up. Olivia (Isabel Sandoval), an undocumented Filipina immigrant, lies in bed and talks on the phone with her mother, who has called to ask when Olivia will be able to send her an allowance. We get the sense that today will be a long day for Olivia. We’re swiftly introduced to Alex (Eamon Wolf), a young white man, who is up bright and early as well to start his new job at a slaughterhouse. Consider how you may have once felt on your first day of work; head swimming with the possibility of who you are and who you want to be; how you can distinguish yourself to your boss and your co-workers? How the job defines you? We cut to Olga (Lynn Cohen), a Russian-Jewish grandmother, who is also starting her day. She moves around her kitchen like a ghost. She picks up the phone and calls her live-in nurse because she “wants to go home.” It becomes clear that she’s suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s and she’s struggling to remember who and where she is.
What defines us? Society? Our families? Our jobs? Our circumstances? Our mistakes? Our selves? Lingua Franca hits the ground running with characters as their paths begin to cross and forces the viewer to consider such questions, though answers are harder to come by. In the age of the superhero movie, it feels increasingly rare to watch a film that expands your view and prompts you to consider new perspectives so strongly. This film delivers on the promise of its title: Lingua Franca; a common language between ‘others.’ This applies not only to the characters inhabiting the film, but for us as viewers of the film.
Olivia lives in fear that ICE may sweep in to her life at any moment and deport her to the Philippines. Many of the spaces that Olivia occupies throughout the film are public: spaces for people to share; yet, she is often the only person we see in the frame. As if she’s the only person attempting to participate, while others stay inside, perhaps content to participate via their screens. We see boardwalks, train stations, city streets; all desolate and seeming liminal spaces, but what are these spaces transitioning towards? Again, there are no easy answers. There is an interesting contradiction at work: These spaces are empty, yet Olivia fears that she’ll be ejected from them regardless. The US has much room that it could be sharing, but it doesn’t. The film shows us that people will seek out connection and relationships, yet early on we see Olivia enjoying a moment of peace, sensuality, and intimacy. What is striking about this moment is that she is alone. The film conveys that solitude, despite the peace it offers, is not how we’re meant to live.
Sandoval, herself, has written extensively on sensuality in cinema, and her expertise on the subject is evident here-in. The steady confidence with which intimate scenes are shot is entrancing. These are the types of scenes that make the room go quiet, because they brook no commentary; just positive and tangible tension aching for resolve, empathetic and relatable. Put another way; this movie is sexy.
Alex struggles to exist in his own way. Surrounded by toxic masculinity; friends who call each other ‘faggot,' Joe Rogan podcasts that lavish respect on men who excel at fighting, a country that elected Donald Trump to the office of president, etc. I found myself stuck on a detail from early in the film, when Alex’s uncle, whom has offered him his job, explains that he’ll be working in the slaughterhouse in the room where Halal slaughters occur. We get a brief mention of what is required for Halal slaughter: a clean knife to the throat. It led me to read more about the practice and wonder: is Halal slaughter meant to be an example of behavior we accept as normal in society due to its tenure and religious importance, despite the seeming barbarism of the act itself and the suffering it causes?
Lingua Franca is about the existential struggle that we all face, and the empathy owed to that struggle in all forms. It is our common ground, whether we realize it or not. Olivia, Alex, Olga; they’re all struggling in their own ways. The ending of the film and how the lives of our characters progress may surprise you; it will challenge you to consider the choices we make or choose not to make in life; how often we must affirm ourselves of who we are and fight to stay in touch with that person It would be easy to make a film that defiantly proclaims “be who you want to be, ignore the haters!” But Lingua Franca knows better: It’s not enough to say “ignore the haters” when you have to co-exist with them. This is a film that understands that in a society that fails to find common ground, in a society that demonizes minorities and chooses to hate, we all suffer, and individuals will forever be forced to fight for their existence.
Written and Directed by Isabel Sandoval