Review: An Immigration Story from a Different Perspective in En el Séptimo Día

En el Séptimo Día (On the Seventh Day) is set in the summer of 2016, and in a way, this timing—recent as it may be—is a small grace as we spend a week with José (Fernando Cardona) and the guys he plays soccer with every Sunday afternoon. Septimo Dia Image courtesy of Siskel Film Center José and his friends are undocumented immigrants from Mexico, working off the books at jobs in restaurant kitchens, as delivery guys and on construction sites. They toil away six days a week just to earn enough to share an apartment and think about what kind of American dream all their hard work might get them. The Sunday matches serve as a small respite from the long weeks, so when José's boss tells him he'll have to work an upcoming Sunday shift—the same day as their championship match—he's got a tough decision to make. The film, cast with non-actors and filmed entirely in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, is fraught with emotion as we get to know José better and understand his dilemma. As difficult as it must be, one can't help but think that it could be worse; he could be going through all this over the summer of 2018. But we are set solidly in the summer before the events of November 2016, and though it now seems like a different time all together, the often unseen (or at least unacknowledged) lives of immigrants were nevertheless filled with challenges. José, played by Cardona with a quiet strength, is a dedicated employee, biking the city streets with his deliveries and even finding additional guys to fill in shifts here and there as his manager requests (all thanks to a solid work ethic; it's not like he gets a referral bonus or anything). He's also a star on the soccer field; all his teammates depend on him to win their matches, so he hesitates to break the news that he probably can't play in the big game. Writer/director Jim McKay, whose work has mainly been in television to date, builds the film around the days of the week, giving the 97-minute narrative the feel of vignettes, each day passing with a simple title card in English and Spanish. These breaks in the proceedings give an effective weight to things, as Sunday (the seventh day) approaches and we still don't know what decision José will make. Will he stay at work, keep his job safe and realize his dream of bringing his very pregnant wife to join him in the U.S.? Or will he stick to his guns, flout authority and play in the most important soccer match of his life? McKay's resolution to this key question is wonderful, clever and unexpected. And of course I won't spoil it here. In the end, the genius in McKay's script isn't in whether or not José's team wins the match or if he's there to help them do it. The genius is in the people whose story he tells and how, with plenty of grace and just enough distance, he brings those stories into focus. Over the course of the week, we are invited into the lives of those service workers and laborers who make our world go 'round, people whose lives we likely don't give much thought to in our own comings and goings. This is so much more than the glimpse we typically get of the delivery man at the door as he hands off our Chinese take-out, or the guy pouring concrete for the sidewalk repairs. McKay makes their lives whole in front of us, with worries and hopes, stresses and celebrations. In just a week's time, with nothing more than a soccer game around which to create drama, McKay manages to have us seeing an entire aspect of our daily lives in a different, more stark light. It's no longer Summer 2016; today, we are faced with far scarier realities about the lives of undocumented immigrants than ever. En el Séptimo Día reminds us that anyone who finds themselves in these circumstances, living somewhere new, struggling in a system that's inherently against them, working long days to earn an honest living, are not "illegal aliens." They are not "other." They are people, as deserving of respect and kindness and a shot at the American dream as anyone else. En el Séptimo Día is now playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Did you enjoy this review? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!
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Lisa Trifone