“We are all brothers in Islam. Anyone with a problem can come to talk.” With these words, a local imam offers supposed comfort and counsel to troubled single mother Amina (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane), not considering that addressing her as his “brother” might not be the most welcoming invitation. Least of all for the problem Amina is nursing: Her 15-year-old daughter, Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio), is pregnant, and has no desire to bear the child. When, later on, a kindly midwife declares that Amina is “like my sister now,” that simple term of address is like a fresh supply of oxygen. In “Lingui,” a brief, quietly forceful new film from veteran Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, Amina and Maria are faced with a man’s world at every turn; how they carve a woman’s one out of it makes for startling viewing.
For Haroun, “Lingui” is a bracing return to form (and to the Cannes competition) after his last narrative feature, the pleasantly mainstream but unmemorable immigrant drama “A Season in France,” failed to catch fire. Once again shooting on the vibrant, ochre-dusted streets of Chad’s capital N’Djamena, the filmmaker seems renewed, alive to local texture, sound and colour. Mathieu Giombini’s lensing is as rich and saturated as overdyed linen; Even in the film’s softest scenes, Thomas Bouric’s sound design is an intricate symphony of voices, vehicles, and barking dogs. For all its surface beauty, however, “Lingui” doesn’t trade in empty pictorialism: From the opening shot, which introduces us to Amina as she methodically strips old tires for scrap metal, Haroun latest has a keen, watchful interest in how people live, well before the more extreme mechanics of the plot get under way.
“Lingui” may return its maker to a familiar milieu, but it’s an exciting departure in other respects. This is Haroun’s first film focused expressly on women: Perhaps it’s a coincidence that it’s less stentorian in its melodrama than some of his previous work, though given the shift, it feels apt that the film listens as much as it speaks. Its surprises extend to its choices of emphasis and protagonist. The premise of a teenage girl desperate to secure an abortion in a country hostile to choice may appear to mark “Lingui” as an across-the-miles sister to such films as “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” and “Never Rarely Sometimes Always.” Unexpectedly, however, the film assumes the perspective not of the girl but her mother, as her daughter’s plight forces to her to reconsider social and religious rules that have never served either of them very well.
In a performance at once contained and toughly physical, Souleymane maps these changes of thinking both across her face, often captured in stern, contemplative repose, and in slowly altered body language. In the course of the film’s tight 87 minutes, Amina’s shoulders grow squared and purposeful, her stride a line of attack. Only in her early thirties, she almost appears, in her deliberate gait and cracked, often breathless voice, to have lived twice that long. Small wonder that Maria callously sees her mother as a walking cautionary tale: “I don’t want to be like you, mom,” she says, when her mother tries to talk her into seeing the pregnancy through. “Everyone thinks you’re a loose woman.” Even the young in this world have internalized the conservative misogyny of their elders.
If Maria seems a slightly wan, unformed character by comparison, it’s because she’s far clearer on what she doesn’t want in life than what she does. Sure enough, Amina had her at approximately the same age Maria is now, and has subsequently been abandoned by a male-led society that — bar the imam’s sanctimonious concern and the unenticing advances of an elderly neighbor — scarcely sees her at all. Maria, meanwhile, refuses to name the man who impregnated her, and is expelled from school when teachers learn of her condition: A similarly solitary motherhood appears to await her if medicine doesn’t intervene. Beyond the religious principles that Amina first recites, with little conviction, as a matter of form, what good reason does she have for not backing her daughter’s choice?
Once allied, Amina and Maria discover they’re less alone than they thought: “Lingui” translates as “sacred bonds,” and refers to the quiet community of women they find willing to act in their best interests, without judgment or remonstration or even money changing hands. The film doesn’t follow the standard track of an issue drama because, from its point of view, there’s no issue to discuss: It’s a story of women doing what they need to do, even when said needs, in Amina’s case, carry the narrative quite far from a study of benevolent sisterhood.
The filmmaking itself, meanwhile, centers women at every turn, from its shot selection to its costume design: In retrospect, it’s hard to specifically recall one male face from the proceedings, while exquisitely composed, sensitive lit closeups of the female leads linger indelibly. Against the sandy, sun-scorched urban landscape of N’Djamena’s impoverished outskirts, the blazing hues and hyperactive patterns of the women’s clothing don’t merely serve as ornamental contrast, but signify resurgent life and feeling. Even a kindly midwife’s quarters are painted in vast, electric expanses of cyan and ultramarine: In “Lingui,” women’s freedoms are sometimes asserted in secret, but they don’t fade into the background.