Discussing the ways in which fiction films shift between their linear, wholly narrative impulses and something approaching ethnography is among the most illuminating aspects of movies so deeply tied to a specific time and milieu. En el Séptimo Día, written and directed by Jim McKay, is particularly upfront about this. Near the beginning of the film, a set of onscreen text locates the events of the narrative as Sunset Park, Brooklyn in the summer of 2016, discretely divided into the days of a single week (beginning on Sunday) and the following Monday. With the sole exception of one shot — a cybercafé in Mexico — the movie never leaves this setting, exploring the seemingly endless maze of streets and the establishments and restaurants just off the beaten path with careful detail and an almost unerring eye.
The viewer’s guide and focal character is José (Fernando Cardona), a Mexican immigrant and avid soccer player who, over the course of the week, attempts to juggle his responsibility as captain of his football team, which is due to play in their league’s finals on Sunday, and his job as a bicycle delivery-person for a somewhat upscale Mexican restaurant. This latter occupation forms much of the backbone of En el Séptimo Día, as a good deal of time is spent observing José as he pedals around the borough making deliveries, often waiting for lackadaisical customers or various other impediments – one day prominently features torrential rain which he must fend off using only a poncho.
Through all of this, there is a certain veneer of repeated indignities inflicted upon him due to his social status as a lower-class worker, primarily – but not solely – by his boss, the most prominent non-Spanish speaker in the film (all English dialogue is also subtitled in Spanish as well, in an intriguing bit of alignment with the viewpoint of the immigrants). José is never discriminated against specifically because of his race per se, but there is an undeniable and continual feeling of uncaring disdain that emanates from almost every character that isn’t friends with him, and indeed they exist on a certain continuum of helpfulness or unhelpfulness that McKay manages to conjure without ever creating a straw-man that can be simply tossed aside.
The idea of Mexican heritage and community as being worthy of celebration in spite of the surrounding culture is repeatedly emphasized, both in the soccer league – at one point it is remarked that only people of Mexican descent can play in the league, and José’s team seems to be named after Puebla F.C. – and in the more “important,” mundane concerns. Much of the central conflict lies in the choice that José must make between working on Sunday, and therefore missing the final that his team will likely lose without his skill, or playing and thus losing his job. An additional wrinkle is thrown in by the imminent birth of his daughter: unless he keeps his job, he cannot go on vacation in a month to bring his wife to America so that his child can obtain U.S. citizenship.
It is to McKay’s credit that these weighty concerns only rarely dominate En el Séptimo Día, which derives much more of its interest from the small, tossed-off interactions of a Skype call, or the banter between the teammates that share a cramped apartment. Even the technical aspects have a lightness to them, as almost all of the film is conveyed through shot/reverse-shot and quick, clean pans, deploying handheld on only a few occasions. In a way, this reflects a certain ethos on the part of the cast and crew: En el Séptimo Día aims not for a glorified, glamorized version of an existence only slightly above poverty nor an excessive grittiness with pretenses towards “realism.” Rather, it seeks to portray a certain way of life with compassion, vitality, and above all fidelity, aims that are deeply felt and executed throughout this remarkable, vigorous film.
En el Séptimo Día premiered at BAMcinemaFest and opens on June 8.