IT SEEMED LIKE OLD TIMES and yet it was, urgently, right now at the world premiere last Sunday of Jim McKay’s En el Séptimo Día (On the Seventh Day). Long one of the most promising New York independent filmmakers, McKay made his mark with two no-budget movies, Girls Town (1996) and Our Song (2000), both depictions of female Brooklyn public high-school students, most of them African American and Latino. They were anti–Beverly Hills 90210 movies—exemplary for their depiction of the liminal condition of underprivileged teenagers whose futures are uncertain no matter how ambitious and talented some of them are.
McKay followed with two less distinguished features, many producing stints, and ten years directing series TV before returning to another Brooklyn study of people in limbo—this time undocumented Mexican men in their twenties and thirties who work long hours in restaurants, bodegas, and street stands; live in crowded apartments; and on Sundays play futbol in Sunset Park. Fifteen years in conception and two years in the making—although the actual shooting only took about twenty days—En el Séptimo Día is a Spanish-language movie with English subtitles. The cast is composed of nonprofessional actors, and they are all splendidly, unselfconsciously real, but it is Fernando Cardona as José who carries the narrative on his work-clothes covered shoulders, literally as well as metaphorically.
Six days a week, José bikes all over Brooklyn, delivering food for an upscale Mexican restaurant in Carroll Gardens. On Sundays, he’s the captain of a futbol team made up mostly of immigrants from Puebla, and their dedicated fans of all ages cluster in Sunset Park to watch them play. The movie begins on the Sunday when José’s team vanquishes their opponents in the semifinals and they look forward to winning it all in just seven days. But on Monday, José’s employer informs him that the restaurant is booked for a big party on the coming Sunday and that he can’t take his usual day off.
José has a week to decide which means more to him—his job, with his boss’s vague promises of promotion and helping him get “papers,” or his loyalty to his team and to futbol itself. It doesn’t seem like much of a plot, but watching José’s struggle turns out to be more than enough. Lots of actors can weep or laugh or become enraged on cue, but only the most gifted are able to express inner conflict. That Cardona accomplishes this in almost every scene is a sign of his talent and of McKay’s ability to inspire confidence in people who’ve never performed on camera. En el Séptimo Día is an intimate character study, but it’s also an excitingly kinetic film, almost half of it involving José dashing through the restaurant’s kitchen and peddling furiously through a Brooklyn that may seem familiar to some of us but which is seldom shown through the eyes of a character who is one of the invisibles. (I will never again curse a bike delivery person for nearly running me down as he rides in the wrong direction on a one-way street.)
Cinematographer Charles Libin is good at moving the camera and stealing exteriors, and McKay’s improvised documentary approach to street life (lots of close-ups of people who don’t figure in the cast of characters) deepens the movie, allowing us to see the world that José and his teammates only precariously inhabit. José tries to keep his head down and obey the rules, but that doesn’t necessarily make him less vulnerable. During the post-screening discussion at BAMcinemaFest last Sunday, someone argued that the limbo in which undocumented immigrants live didn’t begin with Trump’s election. That may be true, but a year ago I wouldn’t have worried that ICE could be waiting outside the theater. No one talks politics in the film, but McKay doesn’t hide the issues, including José’s plans to use his vacation time to bring his pregnant wife from Mexico to live with him as a family in America. Our lives would be greatly enriched by families like his.
En el Séptimo Día premiered Sunday, June 18 at BAMcinemaFest and screens again on Sunday, June 25 at 2 PM in the BAM Rose Theater. A free outdoor screening of McKay’s Our Song plays Thursday, June 22 at 8 PM on Pier 1, Brooklyn Bridge Park.