“En el Séptimo Día” – the title means “On the Seventh Day” in Spanish – is an unassuming charmer about a hot-button subject. José (Fernando Cardona) is an unauthorized Mexican immigrant sharing an overcrowded apartment in the gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park. He works as a bicycle delivery worker for an upscale restaurant and hopes to become a busboy so he can earn enough money to spirit his pregnant wife in Mexico across the border and support a family.
Writer-director Jim McKay is a celebrated independent filmmaker (“Everyday People,” “Girls Town”) who for the past 13 years has worked exclusively on such TV series as “Law & Order” and “The Wire” and making music videos. After his more than a decade in episodic television, one might expect a certain slickness from him, but “En el Séptimo Día,” which is in Spanish and English, with Spanish and English subtitles, is anything but slick. It’s a small-scale triumph of humanistic filmmaking.
Like McKay’s most obvious model here, Vittorio De Sica’s classic “Bicycle Thieves,” “En el Séptimo Día” centers on a man and a bicycle and features nonactors in the cast. But De Sica’s film, one of the transcendent masterpieces of cinema, was an enveloping tragedy. McKay’s movie is far less encompassing. It doesn’t try to be anything more than what it is: a genial, extended anecdote about good people trying to get by while holding on to some dignity.
The film’s central conflict is laid out from the start. José is the best player on his soccer team. They can’t win without him, and they are playing for the finals on Sunday. When his restaurant boss (Christopher Gabriel Núñez) tells him he must give up his free Sunday to work the birthday party of a big-spender patron, José, without mentioning the soccer game, tries to change his employer’s mind, to no avail. As the days leading up to Sunday tick off one by one, José’s quandary, which he can’t bear to reveal to his teammates, deepens. He knows that if he doesn’t work Sunday, he’ll lose his job; if he does work, the big game is lost.
From a practical standpoint, the right choice would appear obvious: Family comes first. But McKay doesn’t operate on a simplistic plane. He knows that for José, a proud man in lowly straits, self-respect is a complicated ideal. Humble as he is, he values his position as the team’s captain; it validates his struggles and boosts his dreams of a better life.
But in trying to do right by everybody, José is at risk of seriously wronging himself.
The way his dilemma plays out is as gracefully low-key as everything else in the movie. It would have been easy for McKay to jack up the melodrama, but he keeps things amiable and loose. The moments that strike home the most forcefully are the ones that barely seem to register at all, such as a brief scene in which an unauthorized immigrant on a bicycle, injured when a car door is suddenly flung open, refuses to go to the hospital. Or just a quiet, extended interlude when we watch a worried José slowly eat a burrito outside a storefront during his lunch break as Brooklyn bustles about him.
The film would have been richer if
McKay didn’t highlight José and his teammates as such unremitting good guys. The white people that José encounters, like the snooty white-collar worker who complains about his delivery order, are for the most part stereotypically rendered. But McKay is very good where it counts the most: He understands these immigrants from the inside out, and, against all odds, he allows us to rejoice in their hopes. Grade: B+ (This movie is not rated.)