As in Blue Eyelids and Dark Spring, the previous work of Mexico’s Contreras brothers — director Ernesto and writer Carlos — has mostly focused on unusual relationships. The more ambitious I Dream in Another Language also features an unusual relationship, the one between two elderly speakers of a dying tongue, but this time it’s embedded in a bigger, potentially fascinating issue: that of language death.
This tale of a young linguist seeking to keep a dying language alive is thought-provoking, visually compelling, and hopefully will help to raise awareness about this indirect form of cultural destruction. But its themes are subordinated to surprisingly bland treatment, so that while it provides plenty of food for thought, for large stretches it’s dramatically defunct, with paper-thin characters playing soap opera roles. Arthouse auds do, however, exist for this kind of idea-laden, ponderously crafted fare, suggesting that the Spanish-speaking festival circuit will be as interested in listening to Language as it has been to the Contrerases’ earlier work.
University researcher Martin (Fernando Alvarez Rebeil), a hot combination of the politically correct and the good-looking, turns up in a small jungle settlement in Mexico’s Vera Cruz province in search of the two remaining speakers of the Zikril language. They are two elderly men, Isauro (Manuel Poncelis) and the ultra-cantankerous Evaristo (Eligio Melendez), living with his uncomplaining, utterly perfect and utterly dull granddaughter Lluvia (Fatima Molina). Martin wants to record Isauro and Evaristo in conversation, but unfortunately for him, the old men haven’t spoken to each other for 50 years, and aren’t about to start now.
Their issues go back to a time shown in extensive flashback, as the old men’s younger versions (Hoze Melendez and Juan Pablo de Santiago) frolic in the surf and fight over a girl, a fight Evaristo won. But as Martin suggests, there has to be more than just a girl to explain 50 years of mutual silence, and he’s right.
The film somewhat ploddingly charts Martin’s attempts to bring Isauro and Evaristo together, whilst making regular returns to the past and its rather insipid, telenovela-ish and hastily recounted love story — a story that has only the most tenuous of connections with the main theme. In fact, the stuff dealing with the younger generation is insipid, including the inevitable, undercooked affair between Martin and Lluvia: And why, anyway, would a young woman so clearly respectful of her grandfather sleep so readily against his wishes with Martin, a virtual outsider?
The old guys, though one-dimensional, are at least wonderfully charismatic, although as in Dark Spring, Contreras seems unsure about when to apply the stylistic brakes. The flashbacks, excessive in length and number; the sometimes unsubtle plot work (Isauro’s persistent cough is one example); and the over-explanatory dialogue all seem to be laid on with a trowel.
Inevitably, there’s a bit of myth woven into it all, in the shape of a magical cave where all the speakers of Zikril go when they die. The Zikril also seem able to converse with animals, and during these more imaginative scenes Contreras, aided by superb soundwork and sumptuous imagery from D.P. Tonatiuh Martinez, conjures up some memorable, dreamlike moments from the mist-laden, verdant jungle landscapes in which the film is set. Technically, it’s all very well crafted.
Lluvia is trying to teach the locals to speak English so they’ll be able to travel to the U.S. in search of work — the implication being that it’s this kind of thinking that has killed off Zikril. Riskily, for the scenes in which Zikril is spoken, there are no subtitles — in any language. This makes sense in a way, since only two characters understand it: It’s a strategy that also neatly reinforces the idea that language death leaves whole areas of experience inaccessible to us, the viewers. On the other hand, there’s one key moment in which that same viewer would love to know what the two old men are thinking and saying, but frustratingly, we aren’t allowed access to their thoughts or conversation. In other words, the ideas of Language are all there, and are fascinating and worthy of consideration; it’s just that they never take on full dramatic life.
Surprisingly, Zikril doesn’t actually exist, so the film has a “language inventor” credit. Given that a real language dies somewhere in the world every couple of weeks, it’s hard to understand why Contreras didn’t use one in actual danger of extinction, perhaps setting the film in the near future. The director could have used the film to do raise awareness, about, for example, one of the Zapoteca languages that his grandmother apparently spoke.
“I Dream in Another Language” will be shown at Frameline 41 Tuesday, June 20 at the Castro Theatre.