2018 Film Essays

Jim McKay’s ‘En el Séptimo Día’: An Immigrant Fairy Tale

A single problem emerges in Jim McKay’s En el Séptimo Día (2017), and it’ll take the entire duration of the film for the main character to reckon with it. Despite its naturalistic trappings, McKay’s new film (his first in 13 years), with its simplicity, transpires like a fairytale, one that concerns an undocumented deliveryman.

When not cycling across southwestern Brooklyn, in the neighborhood of Sunset Park, delivering food orders from a Mexican restaurant to customers, all José (Fernando Cardona) wants to do is play soccer with his mates. In fact, he’s a talented player and the leader of a team, named after Club Puebla, who have made it to the finals in their league. The trouble is that his boss wants him and another teammate to work an important event on Sunday, usually his day off and the day of the match. He could just quit, but his wife back home in Mexico, six months pregnant, depends on him to provide for their growing family. So, over the course of a week, he’ll try to find a replacement player before delivering the bad news to his teammates.

En el Séptimo Día takes place in the present tense. With flexible, transparent cinematography by Charles Libin, the film captures, beat by beat, moment by moment, José’s actions and movements as he bikes, makes deliveries and encounters his boss, friends and customers. In José, McKay finds a figure to shine a spotlight on a group of invisible workers in the food industry and, in not so subtle ways, shows what they have to put up with. A receptionist at a pop-up art gallery talks to someone on her headset phone while mechanically receiving the food from José. In another instance, José leaves when a customer doesn’t show up after ordering on the go. José returns later to the modern, hip (all glass cubicles in an office space) startup and finds the customer in the middle of a conversation about “likes” on Instagram. When he collects the money, the white-collar worker reprimands him for leaving the food on the door handle because there are germs everywhere. Despite the easy caricatures, McKay draws attention to class consciousness and conflict with every person that José hands food to.

Immigrant stories that center on characters grinding away in the food industry have been done before. In fact, En el Séptimo Día completes a trifecta with Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou’s Take Out (2004)and Ramin Bahrani’s Man Push Cart (2005). The former is about an undocumented Chinese deliveryman, the latter a portrait of a Pakistani bagel-and-coffee cart vendor. While these former films were set in the cramped confines of Manhattan, En el Séptimo Día take place in expansive Brooklyn. McKay evokes the mishmash of Sunset Park: the small, locally owned businesses; the delis; the squat two-story apartment buildings placed right next to each other; the park looming over the neighborhood; factories and machine shops still standing long after the days of heavy industry; a moment in that burgeoning patch of gentrification called Industry City.

Belying its sense of authenticity and neo-realism (there’s that word), however, is a moment of narrative convenience and one of sentimental contrivance that mar En el Séptimo Día. In the first, an Irish bystander plays a crucial role in the inevitable soccer match. Is he a white savior or just a helpful fan? Though a bit saccharine, and feeling tacked on, the second is a kind of epilogue that illustrates human decency and sympathy for a fellow man hustling to survive in this hardscrabble metropolis.    

Seemingly an evergreen topic, realism has been an interest in the film community in recent years. In New York, curators Dennis Lim and Thomas Beard programmed a series devoted to the non-actor at the Film Society of Lincoln Center last year. Chloé Zhao’s The Rider (2017), Baker’s The Florida Project (2017), Amman Abbasi’s Dayveon (2017) — all are recent films with non-professional performers that stick to or flirt with a kind of realism. Add McKay’s film to the list, and one wonders if neo-realism, or neo-neo-neo realism is alive and well in American independent cinema.

Tanner Tafelski (@TTafelski) is a film writer and journalist based in New York City. He frequently contributes to Hyperallergic, Kinoscope and The Village Voice. Find him on Instagram, Letterboxd and WordPress.


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