Lingua Franca is one of those movies where we observe people think on-screen, enveloped in silence as the echoes of the characters’ thoughts get to reverberate through the screen. A still camera draped in the kind of lighting meant to illicit a mood where we just sit within the thoughts of others, and it is this still contemplation that allows us to conversely sit in our own thoughts, whether those thoughts involve this movie or not. That contemplation and individual thought without the film trying to dictate our own engagement with it feels revelatory, as so many movies are terrified of this distilled stillness. Lingua Franca allows us to engage with it on our own terms, in our own filmic language, as it luxuriates on skin and reflects images from mirrors, distorting and reframing conversations within the same slice of time. We watch life happen on screen, and Lingua Franca has the wherewithal to let us observe its intricacies.
Written, produced, directed, and starring Isabel Sandoval, Lingua Franca is wrapped in tender intimacy, juxtaposed against the barriers of a world caving in. With warm and cold hues fighting amongst each other, we are left with the portrait of a Filipino transwoman named Olivia (Sandoval), in this country illegally and working as a caregiver for an elderly Russian woman named Olga (Lynn Cohen). Navigating the spaces of her life and the different languages of her worlds, both literal and figurative, all we are left with is the memory of a life experienced. The experience itself might be minimal, existing within this small sliver of time but within that Sandoval is trying to capture the totality of her characters’ existence.
We watch Olivia struggle to obtain a green card and develop a romance with Olga’s adult son Alex (Eamon Farren), but the documentarian closeness that Sandoval creates with her camera allows for a lingering impact, even if the observational nature of the film itself never gets close enough to the subjects to get wrapped up within the emotional turmoil of their lives. Roger Ebert once described the movies as a machine that generates empathy, and Lingua Franca is a perfect summation of that point of view.
Lingua Franca is not filled with emotional platitudes intended to manipulate our emotional perspective as it tries to overstate its importance within the world at large. It does not announce itself, and it is absent of the speeches and melodramatic plotting that might manufacture an aura of importance around this intimate story of a Filipino transwoman living in this country illegally. Instead, it simply relies on the empathy of the audience to do the work and understand the ways in which certain systems are built to oppress, and that idea of oppression as told through the anxiety emanating from Olivia’s journey speaks for itself. The film is not suffocating or oppressive in its desire to squeeze us out of our breath. Instead, it simply relies on observational naturalism to allow us as an audience to form our own ideas about what we’re watching.
A conversation takes place on a bed, a still camera captures the bed and its reflection within a mirror, and we watch a single conversation take on different meanings depending on the perspective that the audience brings to the scene. Olivia sits on the bed. Alex enters through a door, off-screen. Olivia speaks to this man, off-screen, her head tilted in his direction. Reflected through the mirror, we see Alex behind Olivia as she purposely looks away. Two different ideas of a conversation take place simultaneously. It is up to us to parse together these two warring perspectives to reach a subjective truth about how these two arrived at this place. A still camera allowing us to inform our own gaze. A quiet profundity snakes its way into the framing of this moment. Sublime and astounding in its simplicity. I could feel my breath hang in my throat, acutely aware of its own rhythms.
A sex scene filmed with decadent beauty and radiant sensuality, cloaked in shadow, allowing the sweat and texture of the flesh to pronounce itself through its orange hue. Two bodies create their own rhythmic language as they crash and melt into each other. In a film landscape where sex feels like a contractual obligation filmed with clinical sterility, Lingua Franca’s appreciation for the human body, poking beyond the superficial into something that feels a little more serene, is downright triumphant in its perspective.
These two moments within a film full of moments present the dichotomy of perspectives found within the photography. At times intimate, pulsing with a sensual rhythm that creates the language connecting our two characters together. Other times distanced and still; fractured and split. Characters can share a bed and enclose themselves within the body of the other, protected by the comfortability in the other’s scars. Or they can share a bed and tremble with reservation and vulnerability, worlds apart, something feels broken between the two. They shared a dance, basking in the red glow of the lights. Immediately cut to the interior of a shared room, isolated in blue lighting. Warmth melting away. A machine that generates empathy, reflecting our own humanity back at us.
Review: Lingua Franca
The great movies are reflective in nature, allowing an audience to explore their own universality through the specificity of the perspective being shared on screen. Lingua Franca is one of those great movies.