Lingua Franca

United States, Philippines, 2019

Directed by Isabel Sandoval

With Isabel Sandoval (Olivia), Eamon Farren (Alex), Lynn Cohen (Olga), P. J. Boudousqué (Alexei)

“Lingua Franca”, the third film by Filipino filmmaker Isabel Sandoval, is topical to a fault. The lead character, Olivia, is a Philippine migrant who traveled to the United States, more precisely to New York, to get a job, another one among the droves of women her southeast Asian nation prompts to go abroad to bring back through their remittances badly needed cash to prop up the population, a migrant population whose plight, including mistreatment by employers, have made the headlines.

A woman looking for dignity in the darkest background: Isabel Sandoval

Olivia is one of many undocumented migrants in a nation that has turned sour on them; the soundtrack regularly features news broadcasts depicting the law enforcement’s onslaught on the illegal immigration that the administration of Donald Trump has launched, an egregious example of this President’s harsh and nationalistic policy against new flows of foreign populations (his voice is at one point heard). Part of the plot revolves around her effort to get documents that would allow to stay a long time.

Olivia is a caregiver looking after an old woman on the brink of senility, one of the many workers an aging population (though there are worst cases than the US in the Western world) demands to cope with growing health and social issues linked to old age. Actually the first character to be shot is the lady Olivia is helping, Olga, a widow living in a house in Brooklyn and a member of the community of Americans originating from Russia, a living reminder that migrants have always been there to build the American society.

And Olivia is a transgender person, a woman who in fact was born a man as her passport proves, which does not make it easier to settle her legal troubles and to find perhaps love; after all she has a complex identity many cannot easily understand and even less accept, especially as this US administration, which clearly and depressingly clings to a very narrow-minded and ungenerous worldview, fights against the rights that the transgender people can claim, with controversial decisions making the headlines.

If the narrative is shaped by those hot-button issues, the style is more tamed, straightforward and effective. Shots on characters walking or driving through quiet streets or on thoroughly still and empty streets convey the feeling of solitude and anxiety experienced by Olivia. Light, darkness and chiaroscuro are smartly used to illustrate a life in the underground of a society both welcoming and threatening (that underdog statue is made plain by the first shot on Olivia which shows her on the basement of Olga’s house, using the washing machine). Shots on closed doors, open doors and even better on corridors and open doors standing inside the same frame highlight the difference between a servant and a family member and the difficulty to reach out or to stay alone.

For this is the other part of the plot, the unexpected love affair between Olivia and Olga’s grandson Alex. The awkward young man, ill-suited to work and routine, struggles to keep his job at a slaughterhouse and to take care of granny. But he slowly feels attracted by the sad and foreign figure of the caregiver. Of course when his best friend Andrei finds about the transgender identity of Olga, things become tougher. This love story, including the malaise tainted with rage that Alex feels before giving Olivia a second chance, is the most personal and original element of the film, displaying a wonderful ability for tact and delicacy; the sexual and sentimental issues are dealt in hushed and quiet ways, silence and careful observation standing as the best tools to suggest how the characters try to come to terms with the situation.

The lingua franca of the title could be love, the way two persons learn to be one and also, a marriage in name only, a way to get a green card. But Alex is too clumsy and cavalier and Olivia too prudent and proud: the happy ending is denied and the film points that learning the lingua franca is no easy task. The lead character and all the problems she carries along her seem doomed to remain topical for a longer time than she would think and than should be normal, even as the portrait made by the director (who plays the lead role) shows a true person that is more than topical and deserving respect and sympathy on her own right.

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