‘I Dream in Another Language’
A linguist finds more than he expected when he investigates a dying tongue.
Languages have magic — dead or dying ones most of all — and some of that sorcery has made it onto the screen in the evocatively titled Mexican feature “I Dream in Another Language.”
Directed by Ernesto Contreras from a script by his brother Carlos and winner of a Sundance’s world cinema audience award, this is an unusual venture, both charming and serious, that goes in more directions than anticipated, including more than a touch of magic realism.
With the potential loss of an indigenous idiom called Zikril as its focus, “Dream” deals of course with language, with its power to unite, divide, create and elevate, as well as with broader concepts like memory, regret and forgiveness. Zikril is a language made up for the film, though the inspiration for the story was Contreras’ real-life grandmother, who spoke Zapoteco.
Perhaps because of this personal connection, “Dream” is engagingly directed, and the convincing nature of its performances, plus the gentle, straightahead nature of Contreras’ work, keeps us convinced whenever the story ventures into one-step-beyond territory.
The audience surrogate in “Dream” is a young linguistic researcher from the University of Vera Cruz named Martin, played by Fernando Álvarez Rebeil. Martin comes to a tiny mountain hamlet deep in rural Mexico because the last known speakers of Zikril live there, and he thinks recording it for future study will be relatively simple. He could not be more wrong.
First of all, those who still speak it consider Zikril to be not just a form of communication but a keeper of powerful mysteries they worry will fall into the wrong hands.
Taking Martin deep into the jungle, a speaker reveals that Zikril is the language of all beings who live there, the animals and birds as well as man. And, in a scene that skillfully mixes image and sound, we get a spooky sense of birds responding as Zikril is spoken, setting the stage for more magic realism to come.
Now even more determined to learn the language, Martin is faced with an unexpected but beautifully presented problem: the two remaining speakers of Zikril can’t stand each other. Though their cooperation is essential for recorded conversation, they refuse to provide it.
First, we meet Isauro (Manuel Poncelis), a frail and sweet-natured hermit, a self-exiled outcast who lives by himself on the edge of town. The other speaker, Evaristo (Eligio Meléndez), couldn’t be more different. Bitter, cranky and hot-tempered, he may live with his attractive granddaughter Lluvia (Fátima Molina), but he is much more hostile to humanity than his opposite number.
Why do these two hate each other? Inevitably, perhaps, a romantic rivalry was involved. When they were much younger, the story told by Lluvia reveals, Isauro and her grandfather fell in love with the same woman. The fallout of the clash meant that they haven’t spoken to each other for 50 years.
Because Lluvia has her own interest in language (she’s studying English and hopes to move to the U.S.), and because there is clearly romantic interest on both sides, she and Martin conspire to get these two old rivals to cooperate.
There wouldn’t be any movie if Isauro and Evaristo didn’t at least initially reconcile, but having Evaristo bring his own chair to the first meeting is an indicator of how tentative that is. It’s a tribute to the acting skill of both men that their untranslated conversations in this made-up language are among the film’s highlights.
Because the rift between Isauro and Evaristo is a product of the past, “I Dream in Another Language” spends considerable time there, with flashbacks revealing relationships and situations that are unexpectedly deep and difficult to resolve. The past does not turn out to be really past, no matter the language.
THE MEXICAN feature “I Dream in Another Language” sends a linguist, played by Fernando Álvarez Rebeil, foreground, on a journey.