‘I Dream in An­other Lan­guage’

A lin­guist finds more than he ex­pected when he in­ves­ti­gates a dy­ing tongue.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - KEN­NETH TU­RAN FILM CRITIC ken­neth.tu­ran@la­times .com Twitter: @Ken­nethTu­ran

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.

Vic­tor Men­di­ola

THE MEXICAN fea­ture “I Dream in An­other Lan­guage” sends a lin­guist, played by Fer­nando Ál­varez Re­beil, fore­ground, on a jour­ney.

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