Back at the indie helm after a decade-plus of directing gigs for high-profile TV dramas, Jim McKay demonstrates with En el Septimo Día (On the Seventh Day) that his gifts as a filmmaker are as vital as ever. As with Girls Town and Our Song (which marked the feature debut of Kerry Washington), the day-to-day lives of working-class New Yorkers are the writer-director's concern, but this time he turns his focus from teen girls to a thoroughly engaging group of men, immigrants from Mexico who work six days a week and hit the soccer field Sundays. They're played by a magnetic ensemble of nonprofessionals, recruited on McKay's home turf of Brooklyn.
The truly bilingual feature — with Spanish subtitles for English dialogue as well as the more familiar reverse scenario — recently had its world premiere at Brooklyn's BAMcinemaFest. Revolving around friendships, the pleasures of summer sport and the nitty-gritty of jobs that seldom take center stage, it's a work of unforced charm, a neorealist marvel that could score an art house goal for the right distributor.
The apartment the men share is meant for far fewer tenants, but they've worked out the allotment of space, as well as chores and expenses. That give-and-take characterizes all facets of their lives, from living arrangements to work schedules to the serious joy of futbol. They’re teammates as well as roomies, and as the movie opens, their squad, named after their home state of Puebla, has nabbed a place in the following Sunday's finals at nearby Sunset Park.
Given that the men are undocumented, their lives are particularly grounded in geopolitical realities, but McKay is interested in personality, not policy. Light and unhurried, the movie is spun from a classic dilemma: duty or pleasure?
For restaurant deliveryman Jose (Fernando Cardona, terrific), who captains the team, that burning question is sparked by an unhappy scheduling conflict between the upcoming championship match and work. Steve (Christopher Gabriel Nunez), the young owner of the fine-dining Mexican eatery that's named, not incidentally, La Frontera (The Border), is no entrepreneurial caricature and can even be reasonable, but he's also capable of inflicting a mandatory Sunday shift on his crew with only days' notice, the urgent matter being a kid's birthday party booked by a high roller.
Jose is the best player on the team. He's also Steve’s best delivery guy, and with his pregnant wife (Loren Garcia) arriving soon from Mexico, Jose needs his job more than ever. He's counting on Steve's promise to up him to busboy, with visions of further promotions shaping his American dream.
McKay's screenplay ticks off the days to the big game, with the amenable Jose passing up one opportunity after another to break the bad news to his teammates. As he sums up the problem to one of the few people he confides in, "Either we get slaughtered or I get fired." The weight of his quandary plays out on Cardona's furrowed brow, in his anxious gaze and gestures.
Jose doesn't want to be timid, but unlike his hotheaded coworker/teammate Jesus (Abel Perez), he favors compromise over principle. Yet he stands his ground when he encounters the inevitable condescending jerk. His own neighborhood is a place where all types, of many nationalities, hang out in the park and cheer on his team. But hipster Brooklyn is just a stone's throw — or a delivery call — away. At the industrial-chic offices of an outfit called Resistance Media, the insufferable receptionist (Nico Kiefer) makes clear that the company name has nothing to do with the concept of solidarity with the working man.
During the workweek, Jose and some of his fellow Poblanos cross paths as he whisks through the neighborhood on his bike. Some make deliveries from coffee shops, some work in bodegas, others in construction, while the blithe Nacho (Alejandro Huitzil) shrugs with a smile at his lot: cleaner at a peep show. (He also adds a third language, Mixtec, to the film.)
With their collaborative support and interdependence, the men form a de facto economic network, a fact that's made wonderfully clear after Artemio (Genoel Ramirez) injures his knee in the semifinals. To help him heal for the championship match without losing income, Jose has Artemio, normally a hawker of cotton candy on the streets of Manhattan, switch jobs for a few days with Felix (Alfonso Velazquez), who washes dishes at La Frontera — all to the bafflement of his boss, Steve, who grudgingly accepts the temporary arrangement.
And yet for all that interdependence, Jose carries the burden of his dilemma mostly alone, and must be reminded of the power of community by a priest (Juan Carlos Ruiz), who cites the labor struggles and victories of local "carwasheros."
Cinematographer Charles Libin, who has ample experience in nonfiction film, shoots the action with a documentary directness that serves the material well. But there's a touch of artful wryness, too, bright and unfussy, in the way he and McKay frame this city story — particularly in the way the roommates arrange themselves in their small domestic space. The men of En el Septimo Dia, are nothing like the sheltered (and privileged) academicians of Ball of Fire, but the spirited visuals of them together in one room sometimes recall that classic New York comedy, albeit without the screwball slant. That there's room for such associations is a testament to the filmmaker's light touch.
There's a fair dose of low-key slapstick in the climactic sequence, along with suspense and heart and hard-won redemption. Jose's cheerful teammate Elmer (Gilberto Jimenez) proves resourceful in his desperation, and an alert Puebla fan (Donal Brophy) helps him put his "badass" scheme in motion. McKay choreographs it with the same vibrancy that buoys the entire film. Then he adds a beauty of a kicker, and as the Veracruzano musician Zenen Zeferino Huervo sings of desert flowers, every unstated emotion in the movie comes to the surface in a gut-socking ache of melody.
Production company: C-Hundred Film Corp.
Cast: Fernando Cardona, Gilberto Jimenez, Abel Perez, Genoel Ramírez, Alfonso Velazquez, Alejandro Huitzil, Gilberto Arenas, Ricardo Gonzalez, Eduardo Espinosa, Cristofer Huitzil, Donal Brophy, Delfino Solis, Ernesto Lucero, Christopher Gabriel Núñez, Alejandra Tomais, Mathia Vargas, Nico Kiefer,Loren Garcia, Inocente Canete Jr., Armando Pacheco, Victor Paez, Oscar Ramirez, Mauricio Martinez, Juan Carlos Ruiz, Rich Rodriguez, Alex Tragellis, Maria Caamano, Zenen Zeferino Huervo
Director-screenwriter: Jim McKay
Producers: Alex Bach, Lindsey Cordero, Caroline Kaplan, Jim McKay, Michael Stipe
Executive producer: John C. Johnson
Director of photography: Charles Libin
Production designer: Maite Perez-Nievas
Costume designer: Begona Berges
Editor: Karim Lopez
Casting: Jodi Angstreich