At the outset of Mexican director Ernesto Contreras’ entrancing fourth feature, “I Dream in Another Language,” the fate of an indigenous language hangs in the balance: Only two living souls — once the closest of friends, now bitter rivals — still speak Zikril, which could easily die with them. Like certain species of rare butterflies, languages really do disappear, but the director (and his screenwriter brother, Carlos) pursue the metaphor further: In a world of globalization, endangered primitive languages represent different ways of seeing and understanding the world, perspectives that are lost when we fail to show sufficient curiosity in the generations and cultures that have come before.
In a perverse twist, this lovely, festival-anointed art film (which won the world dramatic competition’s audience award at Sundance) opens the same day as “The Emoji Movie,” and though each film depicts the death of communication in its own fashion, only one could be described as a poetic elegy to all that is lost when that happens. But even without the intrigue of a visiting linguist struggling to document Zikril (an imaginary dialect invented for the film), Contreras’ film uniquely honors the memories and experience embodied in our elders — which it is our responsibility to preserve, and their prerogative to take to their graves, if they so desire.
It’s rare enough to find a university researcher like Martín (Fernando Álvarez Rebeil) willing to dedicate time and energy to documenting the past, but his task is complicated here by the fact that the two men still capable of speaking Zikril haven’t exchanged words in nearly 50 years. Traveling from Mexico City to a small tropical village, Martín intends to record conversations between the elderly duo, only to find that one-time blood brothers Isauro (José Manuel Poncelis) and Evaristo (Eligio Meléndez) fell out almost half a century earlier over a Spanish-speaking girl, María (Nicolasa Ortíz Monasterio).
Now, Martín’s only hope is to figure out and repair the longstanding discord between the two cantankerous old men. Most of the movie takes place in the present, as the young outsider tries to navigate this tricky situation, but the stubborn old men’s reactions make clear that whatever happened in the past was serious enough that they might try to kill one another if put in the same room. (At one point, Evaristo tries to do exactly that, locking Isauro in his cabin before setting the building on fire!)
When Contreras does provide glimpses of the past, it’s an idyllic, sepia-toned recreation that we see, far different from the lush, green rainforest feel he lavishes upon the rest of the picture. These flashbacks take place mostly at the beach, offering a tawdry view on the moment when Evaristo and Isauro’s friendship (Juan Pablo de Santiago and Hoze Meléndez play their handsome young counterparts) reconfigured into a tricky love triangle — an “Y Tu Mamá También”-like reverie with so much white linen seductively clinging to the characters’ wet skin. It’s hardly earth-shattering what turned the two amigos against one another, but Contreras fairly captures the way such a scandal could divide the final two members of a native community for the rest of their lives — and the difficulty an outsider might face in trying to mediate between them so late in the game.
Gentle and empathetic, the movie is constructed in such a way that it ultimately doesn’t matter whether or not Martín manages to preserve Zikril — nor do we much care what comes of a romantic subplot between the researcher and Evaristo’s granddaughter (Fátima Molina), who hosts English lessons on the local radio. Rather, the mystery behind the decades-old rift takes precedence. In the end, it’s enough for the two elderly characters to relive those memories and to find the appropriate words to say to one another after all these years — which, of course, the audience finds itself in the privileged position not only to witness, but to understand, courtesy of an intimate on-screen translation.
“Dream” suggests that while primitive, Zikril was more evolved than our language in some key respects, such as allowing its speakers to communicate directly with the birds and trees. It all leaves us wondering what emotions Zikril might have allowed them to express that Spanish or English do not, and whether certain modern ideas simply had no analog in their language — beautiful ideas seldom raised in cinema, making this tale nearly as rare as the culture it depicts.