Isabel Sandoval's achievement in Lingua Franca I submit isn't so much the breaking of boundaries or the allusion to current events (transgendered-directed film on transgendered relationships, and the perils of undocumented immigrants) but her plainspoken way of creating a mood, a feeling, the ambiance of an eerily depopulated subtly menacing New York just this much more hostile to the marginalized.
Olivia (Sandoval) works as caregiver to the increasingly forgetful Olga (the late lovely Lynn Cohen) in the Brighton Beach neighborhood of New York (Olga sits with an orange in a kitchen, calls Olivia by phone, demands to know when she can go home; Olivia patiently reminds her that she is in fact at home, sitting in her own kitchen, surrounded by wallpaper she herself picked out). Olivia has two strikes against her: she's undocumented and she's transgendered. She not only has to deal with ICE agents but when presenting herself to immigration officials (in the hope of getting that precious green card) has to deal with the fact that her passport shows the picture of a man, with a man's name. Olivia has a plan (an arranged paid-for marriage to an American citizen) and the means however slow to achieve that plan (she not only makes enough to eventually pay her 'husband' the $5,000 balance, she has enough left over to send to her family back in Cebu). Enter Olga's distractingly attractive grandson Alex (Eamon Farren); he's coming out of rehab (presumably for alcohol, implicitly for drugs), is working a job (arranged for him by his mother) at a slaughterhouse with an uncle, is staying with his baba--partly to have a place to stay, partly to help Olivia care for her.
Will Olivia get her green card? Will she and Alex fall in love? Sandoval doesn't seem to focus on plot mechanics so much as on the relationships between different characters: Alex with his baba (low-key playful, affectionate); Alex with his intimidating uncle (sullen-submissive vs. loudly demanding); Alex with Olivia (gently flirtatious); Olivia on long-distance calls with her unseen anxious mother (reassuring if resigned); Olivia with her best friend Trixie (Ivory Aquino, another transgendered actress--they confide with each other as if lifelong friends which they are (as kids they considered becoming altar boys together)).
Surrounding these forlorn melancholy figures is a faintly unfamiliar if recognizably gritty New York. If better-known Manhattan is constantly teeming with unruly life its outer boroughs move with a more measured step, with room enough for the occasional empty street or deserted boardwalk. Sandoval captures streets with crumbling '70s storefronts and memorably archaic elevated rails; cinematographer Isaac Banks (this is his first fiction feature) contributes a muted color palette to depict a more muted New York, seen mostly at night or late dusk; one of the few moments of genuine color to be found in the film is the flash of police car lights startling Olivia as she rounds a street corner--the stuff of nightmares for a fugitive alien.
When it counts Sandoval raises the thermostat a notch: a scene between Olivia and Alex involves Alex reading aloud to his baba: "I will cover you with love when next I see you, with caresses, with ecstasy"--an excerpt from a love letter written to Olga by her husband, surreptitiously copied off of Flaubert. It's an unfussy but complex moment: Alex's grandfather pulls off a deception Olga later uncovers, doesn't stop Olga from treasuring the silly missive; Olivia is informed outright of the plagiarism, but the words as read in Alex's voice don't stop Olivia from drifting off into a fantasy involving the two, with more words, this time in her voice, spoken in her childhood language of Cebuano ("emissaries of carnage...scorching the earth, engulfing me in flames"). From English to Cebuano from the exotic words of a French romantic to the exotic cadences and flavors of a Filipino dialect--Sandoval provocatively dubs herself 'Queen of Sensual Cinema' and the tagline may be premature, may perhaps be unwarranted, but in those fleeting fragile moments at least you find yourself sold.
Mention must be made of Gil Portes' 'Merika, again about a Filipina health care worker struggling to survive the United States: Nora Aunor's Mila has legal status and is fairly well off, but Portes just as eloquently captures her sense of isolation from her home. Not sure if Sandoval has seen the film but hers feels like a spiritual descendant, with a similarly spare severe tone--Olivia as Mila in Trumpland, forced to confront shifting questions about human connection and sexual identity. Not going to go into a discussion of who gives the better performance--I'd rather think of the two as sisters in exile, and if they could ever meet they would have much to say to each other.
Many critics take exception to the films' ending (skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven't seen the film!): why fly in the face of common sense and reject Alex's offer? I submit that Olivia's decision is what makes her film uncommon. Olivia is a cautious creature, as self-contained as a clam; she has to be--she's doubly vulnerable, to both ICE agents and homophobes. Relinquishing control to Alex is a huge step, and she probably mistrusts the feelings of affection and sexual attraction that would accompany the decision. Not as if Alex is all that reliable--he still drinks, lost his job at one point because of his drinking, did steal her passport. He later gets his job back and gives her her passport, but that's the beauty of Sandoval's approach: she's not looking to create easy heroes or villains (even Alex's hardass uncle betrays a more trusting side) but complex people with sometimes mysterious reasons for doing what they do. The film ends in a rhymed scene, of Olga back at her kitchen table with yet another orange, looking around dumbfounded, dialing her telephone--is she calling Olivia again? Is Olivia still the elderly woman's caregiver and does she still maintain contact with Alex--are they still perhaps lovers? May have been romantic folly for Olivia to accept Alex's offer but may also be equally romantic folly for Olivia to insist on completely cutting off all ties with the family. She may or may not feel she can afford the uncertainty, along with all the other ambiguities in her life--it's really her choice.
First published on Businessworld 5.7.21