In his doctoral dissertation submitted to Harvard in 1916, renowned modernist poet T.S. Elliot wrote, “every experience is a paradox in that it means to be absolute, and yet is relative; in that it somehow always goes beyond itself and yet never escapes itself.”
Within an insensitive nation currently governed by an abhorrent president and administration, Eliot’s words speak volumes. His words serve as a truism for life as an undocumented immigrant bound to the fringes of a society forgotten, inescapably suppressed and misrepresented by a country that falsely promotes opportunity. The life of an immigrant is one of absolute, cyclical preclusion and shared difficulty. Those who are undocumented naturally empathize with one another to a level U.S. citizens just cannot. Needless to say, these struggles shared between immigrants are at the same time relative to one another. Independent director Jim McKay’s (“Our Song,” “Girls Town”) latest film, “En El Séptimo Día” (On the Seventh Day), sets out to express the paradoxical nature of human experience through a singular life, shared with a group people perpetually generalized and understood only on the surface. With his first film in over ten years, McKay emerges from obscurity and paints a portrait about the routine and everyday life of an Mexican immigrant named José (Fernando Cardona) in “En El Séptimo Día.”
Split into the days of the week, McKay’s neorealist film commences on Sunday, where José and his teammates (also his roommates) are playing soccer at the local field on Sunset Park in Brooklyn, New York. Here, they find solace — a respite from the painstaking mundanity of their jobs by advancing to the league championship game. When Monday arrives, José returns to his job as the bicycle delivery guy man for La Frontera restaurant. Enamored by his team’s chances of capturing the title, José is blindsided when his boss informs him that he has to work the following Sunday, the same day as the title game, and is forced to choose between job security and loyalty to his friends. The film proceeds to endearingly depict José balancing between the prospective consequences of this ultimatum, a heartrending trapeze act by every means.
An extraordinary yet reserved account of the charm within life’s repetition, “En El Séptimo Día” runs from the same vein as a Jim Jarmusch film by relinquishing the peaks and valleys of plot conventionality. In its place, McKay observes the life of a Mexican immigrant through a poetic lens — compassionately documenting raw emotion and expository dialogue rather than action or full-fledged conversations.
When reduced into a synopsis, “En El Séptimo Día” lends an unattractive impression. José gets up in the morning, heads to work, fervently delivers food to customers, goes home, eats with his friends/roommates, occasionally video calls his pregnant wife back in Mexico and does it all over again over the course of one week — the next day is feeds into a vicious cycle. It’s a familiar storyline yet the result is a film defined by the value of reticent moments, dull pain and mundanity. While each day is similarly drab, there lies a poetic beauty in this banality and struggle. Although José breaks his back and spreads himself thin for mere pennies, poetry brims from the motivation behind his laborious lifestyle, so that his wife and unborn child may soon live a better life. McKay devises a genuine scope of experience and allows the audience to endure Jose’s life alongside him — it’s painstaking, devastating and wholly unique.
Cardona’s brilliance emanates here. His performance is contingent on facial expressions and physical tics rather than words. His alluring face is juxtaposed by painful weariness, sullen eyes and a sense of humanity like no other. While there are many instances where maddened emotion would have been justified, José’s sense of humanity subverts and executes unshaken stoicism. Although Jose barely utters a word, the viewer will understand his pain on some level; grasping why a game strung together by camaraderie helps alleviate the endeavors of life as an undocumented immigrant.
When confronted by a nation rallied around chants of “Make America Great Again” and “Build that Wall,” films like “En El Séptimo Día” will remind those who are privileged that they will stay privileged and those who struggle will continue to struggle because of the privilege of others. Nevertheless, McKay’s latest work of art is an ode to those who fight for that glimmer of hope this country claims. It remembers those who attempt to corral an idyllic outlook of a society that remains reluctant to accept those who speak a different language, practice a different religion and possess a darker skin color. [A-]