Wednesday 8 July 2020

A woman's work: "Litigante"

Litigante is one of a growing number of films - the recent output of the Safdie brothers being foremost among them - to run principally on stress, ordeals that seek to raise the viewer's blood pressure by dropping us in the middle of a chaotic situation to watch a thoroughly frazzled, overburdened protagonist try and figure some way through the fire. The Colombian writer-director Franco Lolli's follow-up to 2014's Gente de Bien opens up on Hallowe'en, with a non-supernatural nightmare: a daughter looking on helplessly as her ageing, stubborn mother undergoes an MRI scan and is informed by physicians that her cancer is spreading beyond control. The burden of care is but the first of the weights placed on the shoulders of the film's heroine Silvia (Carolina Sanin). She has a young son, who'd be a handful in any other time and place. As a spokesperson for Bogota's works department, she finds herself in the firing line for the questionable decisions taken by her superiors. And she's not above taking questionable decisions herself, like copping off at a party with the shaggy radio presenter who'd earlier skewered her party line on the air. Here is a film that recognises that when given the option of making life easier or harder for themselves, there are people in this world who will always plump ruefully for the latter.

Lolli certainly gives himself plenty to work with, across multiple fronts. With the assistance of co-writers Marie Amachoukeli-Barsacq and Virginie Legeay, he sets strands running that pulse with the urgency of frayed nerves or forehead veins: the deterioration of the mother (brilliantly embodied by non-pro Leticia Gómez), plagued by a hacking cough that hardly comforts us in summer 2020; the deliquency of the son, requiring Silvia to take up what seems like semi-permanent residence in the office of the lad's headmaster; the hostile reaction of Silvia's loved ones to the unlikely new man in her life. Then there is the accusation that our heroine has been taking her eye off the ball at work, to which the only rational response can be: well, given all of the above, wouldn't you? The caffeine-junkie Safdies have been guilty of juicing up their stress-test movies via plot contrivances, strikingly ghastly performers and a mode of filming that is in itself somewhat anxiety-inducing. (They may get found out once hipster critics get over their ridiculous A24 fetish.) Lolli rightly senses he can tell his story naturistically - that he can simply focus on the basics of writing and performing - and still put over a strong sense of the state his protagonist is getting in: the understated moral of Litigante is that you wouldn't have to be a bank robber or a reckless gambler/jewellery dealer to find modern life a bit much.

It demands a lot of the actors, who have to sustain a harried demeanour while committing to the muddling through that gets you and I through the trying weeks; they have to avoid becoming martyrs or patsies, and cultivate something truthful. (Their plates are almost as full as those of the characters.) Lolli coaxes a strong performance from the raccoon-eyed Sanin - better known as an author - as a woman so busy tending to others that she barely has chance to define who she is in herself: a nap around the halfway mark is about as good as it gets. That Litigante is never as draining or depressing as it might sound is that her Silvia passes through this whirlwind clutching clear proofs of the happiness she wants for herself: to raise a family, serve the common good, to love and be loved in return, three distinct goals that tend to pull their pursuers in very different directions. The surprise is that this pursuit heads not towards an explosion (as per Safdie) but some easing-off - it's this director's gift to the character, a break she sorely deserves. If Litigante has a goal of its own, beyond showing something of life as it often was before the great pause of 2020, it's to humanise those alpha women held up as exemplars in our media landscape, and pose serious questions of the extent to which anybody really can have it all. The conclusion it leads us to is that it is possible - but, boy, does it look like bloody hard work.

Litigante is available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema from Friday.

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