Fernando Cardona, the star of Jim McKay’s supremely confident and captivating independent feature “En el Séptimo Día” (“On the Seventh Day”), has the most hypnotic face I’ve seen on an actor in months. Cardona is handsome — bedroom eyes, chiseled smile — and in the movie his stoically sexy features are set off by a rather extreme fade haircut: shaved all the way up on the sides, but longish and combed on top, like an oil-slicked Mohawk.
In another context, you could see him as a real player, but Cardona’s José, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who works as a delivery guy in Brooklyn, doesn’t speak much English, and the image he presents is quiet, passive, and cautiously controlled. One false move could destroy everything he’s worked for. Cardona uses that stillness to express unspoken currents of fear, hope, and desire; he comes off like a boy in the body of a man who’s a very old soul. José is trying to put down roots, but that solemn statue face tells you he’s already more rooted than anyone around him.
The words “independent film” can mean a hundred different things, but there was a time when they really just meant one thing: an earnest, no-budget, plainly shot movie with a droopy-dog rhythm that told the story of the sort of “ordinary people” who were miles away from the radar of mainstream movies. For a long time, the genre was so shoestring that a lot of indie features we think of as landmarks — John Cassavetes’ “Shadows,” John Sayles’ “Return of the Secaucus 7,” Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep” — had a humanity that was far greater than their utilitarian film technique; that was part of their no-frills neorealist aura.
McKay, who has made a handful of eloquent indie dramas, notably “Girls Town” (1996) and “Our Song” (2000), is a filmmaker who works very much in that tradition. But because he decided that he wanted to make a living, he has spent the last 13 years doing prestige television, directing episodes of “The Wire,” “Big Love,” “Law & Order,” “In Treatment,” “The Good Wife,” and other shows. “En el Séptimo Día” marks his return to the big screen, and as it happens the TV work has only enhanced his chops as a filmmaker. The new movie has a bone-deep humanity-that-transcends-technique that reaches right back to Cassavetes, yet it’s also exquisitely made: a micro-budget drama that’s less scrappy than classical. Each elegantly framed shot, every deftly observed moment expresses something organic and moving.
We first meet José when he’s doing what he loves most: playing soccer. He’s the leader of his local Mexican team, which plays in a league at Sunset Park, and early on they clinch the game that gets them into the finals. The team members retire to a small apartment that’s their hangout den, where they have a few beers and rib each other, and it takes us a minute to realize that they all live there. To call it cramped would be an understatement, but it’s their toehold in America.
Then we see José at work, hopping on his bike to deliver orders for La Frontera, an upscale Mexican restaurant in Carroll Gardens. He’s good at his job — fast, dependable, and scrupulously polite — and though the customers still find a way to blame him for this or that (the food is cold, dammit!), he enjoys the freedom, depending on his own industry as he wheels himself around a vibrant neighborhood. It’s all part of the spirit that has wooed him here. Yet the restaurant’s owner, Steve (Christopher Gabriel Núñez), is a piece of work: a liberal yuppie who doesn’t think he’s treating his undocumented workers like he owns them. José knows how to bow and scrape, but he get pinned into an impossible choice when Steve demands that he work all day on Sunday (usually his day off), the same day as the soccer finals. Should he keep his job or go for the glory?
The fact that he leans as much he does toward going for the glory may sound like the obviously wrong choice, but the game, we realize, is about more than soccer; it’s about the bond with his fellow immigrants that’s at the core of his soul. The movie unwraps José layer by layer, so that we experience first-hand what a complicated fellow he is. It’s only halfway through that we learn he’s married — and that his wife, still back in Puebla, Mexico, is three months pregnant and planning to come join him. They are launching a life together in the new world. But that’s easier said than done.
Recently, there has been a raging war over whether fiction writers have the right to “appropriate” stories of people outside their race, and we can only hope that the hard-line view on that topic — that they don’t have the right — never takes over the world of cinema. Jim McKay, in “En el Séptimo Día,” doesn’t pretend to belong to the impoverished ethnic demimonde he’s portraying, but he’s a long-time resident of Brooklyn who cast the film by getting to know immigrants near his neighborhood and incorporating pieces of their lives into his narrative. Sorry, but that’s not “appropriation” — it’s empathy in action.
“En el Séptimo Día” is a movie that makes a powerful political statement by never coming out and saying it. The film captures the reality behind a thousand news stories, sketching in what the politics of undocumented immigration really means: the way that small businesses depend on these workers (and depend, to a degree, on treating them like chattel), and the way that the promise of America as an oasis of salvation is alive in immigrants’ hearts. Do these kinds of perceptions dictate policy? They should certainly inform policy in an age when “Build the wall!” really means: Keep out the pests.
That said, it would be wrong to make “En el Séptimo Día” sound like some piece of indie-film medicine. The movie climaxes with that soccer game, which lures José in despite his better judgment. It turns out to be a rousing sports contest, not just because we’re rooting for José’s team to win, but because the real athletic event is José’s attempt to deliver all his restaurant orders and score goals at the same time. It’s a perfect metaphor for what undocumented immigrants in America have to be: not the non-people too many see them as — but, in fact, two different people at once. The invisible indentured servant and the desperate dreamer.