Colombian writer-director Franco Lolli wrongfoots us a little with the title of his sophomore feature “Litigante”: Unsuspecting audiences may go in expecting a courtroom drama, not least given that its protagonist is an embattled public-sector lawyer. As it turns out, for fortyish single mother Silvia — played with utterly credible, bone-deep weariness by the superb Carolina Sanin — family life provides most of her trials. As she shoulders the various, intermeshing stresses of caring for her cancer-stricken mother, handling an office corruption crisis and embarking on an awkwardly timed new romance, Silvia is pushed close to a breaking point that she impressively never quite reaches. In turn, “Litigante,” affecting and intelligently observed as it is, falls just short of a rewarding dramatic crescendo: It’s a film of small, precisely rendered moments rather than major emotional flourishes.
That should be enough for this small-scale Franco-Colombian production to build a case for itself on the festival circuit after kicking off this year’s Cannes Critics’ Week program: It should at least match the profile of Lolli’s similarly modest, accomplished 2014 debut “Gente de Bien,” which likewise bowed in Critics’ Week before scooping up a number of further festival honors. International distribution prospects are less certain, but this is just the kind of intimate, broadly relatable and smallscreen-friendly arthouse item that major streaming outlets are adding to their rosters in growing numbers of late.
It’s likely that many viewers, after watching “Litigante,” will hit up IMDb to find out what else the film’s sterling leady lady Sanin has been in: It has the feel of a belated breakout vehicle for a long-deserving character actress in the mold of Spain’s Barbara Lennie. So it’s a surprise to discover that Sanin is instead a gifted non-pro: A prominent Colombian writer and academic who also happens to be Lolli’s cousin: She served as the director’s inspiration for Silvia before art and life were deemed inseparable on this front. The family affair extends to Lolli’s own mother, Leticia Gómez, playing Silvia’s proud, quarrelsome mom Leticia, who’s gradually giving in to lung cancer whilst holding on to a relentless verbal fighting instinct. “Litigante’s” many scenes of loaded domestic conflict have a nervy authenticity that perhaps betrays Lolli’s close-to-home casting preferences.
It’s this running current of fraught argumentative energy between loved ones that gives “Litigante” its vigor, even as the storytelling is entirely straightforward. We’re quickly immersed into what has obviously been a long-running love-hate dynamic between Silvia and Leticia, herself a former lawyer, who are entirely too alike to get alike to get along peaceably, even as the rapid metastasis of Leticia’s cancer makes it clear they’re on borrowed time. So they spend every available moment together regardless, chipping away at each other at home and in hospital rooms alike, with their mutual adoration of Silvia’s young son Antonio (Antonio Martinez) often serving to smooth the waters between them; meanwhile, Silvia’s far milder-mannered younger sister Maria-Jose (Alejandra Sarria, excellent) patiently weathers the other two women’s feuding.
Inevitably, Silvia’s aggravation over her family situation seeps into the office, as relations between her and her superior at the Bogotá public-works department grow increasingly tense and fractious. Embroiled in a brewing municipal corruption scandal for which she has to provide a calm public front, she’s unnerved by a radio interview with hard-driving liberal journalist Abel (Vladimir Durán), only to be stunned to find herself falling for him on a chance second encounter. Their tender, burgeoning relationship, however, also soon falls prey to Silvia’s rattled state of mind, while the familial pressure-cooker at home soon has even cherubic Antonio acting out in response.
Co-written with Marie Amachoukeli and Virginie Legeay, Lolli’s script keeps as many balls in the air as its put-upon heroine does, but doesn’t feel overplotted. Rather, “Litigante’s” various, fretting strands add up to a honest, empathetic portrait of overburdened modern motherhood — at least, until an abrupt, anti-climactic conclusion that leaves a few too many ends frayed. It feels a somewhat forced wrap-up to a film that in all other respects — from its convincingly creased, inhabited performances to Luis Armando Arteaga’s fluid, tactile lensing — aims to evoke these women’s lives at their own anxious, occasionally exhausted pace.