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Jim McKay’s En El Séptimo Día (On the Seventh Day) is a triumph, a compassionate, warm, and deeply humane tribute to the everyday existence of undocumented workers who like so many other people, are committed to simply waking up and going to work.
Except of course for the men McKay’s film focuses on, all of whom are undocumented themselves and non-professional actors, that simple task is fraught with danger. We see the daily humiliations of working low wage jobs for bad bosses, against whom these men have no recourse. We see them crammed together in one apartment, spread across mattresses and couches, sleeping wherever they can find room.
And yet McKay avoids the obvious pitfalls inherent to this genre. There’s no overt exoticising, no liberal pitying, no moral high ground. From the very first scene, in which we see their soccer team, Puebla F.C. (named after their hometown team in Mexico) win the semi-finals match in their recreational league, its clear that McKay sees these men as human beings. The main character, Jose, who is so charismatic and so full of pathos that you forget it’s probably his first time in front of a camera, is also deeply flawed. When his boss at the restaurant where he works as a delivery guy won’t give him the following Sunday off, he hides the information from his teammates as long as he can, too afraid to challenge his boss and too ashamed to admit he won’t be able to play in the finals.
That, by and large, is the whole plot. The film is broken up by each day in the week, each sequence following Jose as tries to balance his job, staying in contact with his pregnant wife in Mexico, helping out his teammates, and worrying about whether they’ll win the big game. It’s a simple story, simply told, and the result is a film defined by quiet moments, drawing out drama and comedy from the mundanity of every day life. Waking up for work, going to soccer practice, cooking dinner together as a makeshift family. There are no grand revelations to be found, its most dramatic implications left onscreen. In their place, the non-professional actors and neorealist style work to implicate you in a world that is both completely foreign (at least for those of us who are not either undocumented immigrants or related to one), and yet deeply familiar.
The Brooklyn brownstones, situated amongst leafy streets and interrupted by more bodegas and churches than make sense, are instantly recognizable. McKay’s camera catches everything. The Chinese laundromats, the Yemeni store owners, the English pubs and German soccer teams— while the last year has often felt like a battle for the soul of America, here we the foundational myth put to the test. The United States of America is a nation of immigrants, we are constantly told from the moment we are born, and yet in En El Séptimo Día we see exactly what that means. It’s people working side by side, in solidarity with each other based on their shared experiences and shared struggle— to be recognized, to put food on the table, to get to work. When a fellow delivery man is hit by a car, we understand that it could have been Jose, or any of his teammates, and it is by pure luck that he can continue to get his bike from his restaurant to whoever orders from it, and hopefully get a tip at the end.
For some the soccer game Puebla play at the end might just be a game, and yet what McKay succeeds at is that without a character ever having to say it out loud, we completely understand why something as simple as a recreational game can mean so much more for the people who struggle day in and day out merely to survive. Like Happy Go Lucky or last year’s Patterson, En El Séptimo Día is ultimately a testament to the inherent bravery of waking up, putting on your shoes, getting out the door, and getting on with the business of one’s life. It’s simply perfect.
En El Séptimo Día plays as part of BAMcinemaFest, June 17th.
Larissa Martinez, a a graduating member of the class of 2016 at McKinney Boyd High School in Texas, used her valedictorian speech to reveal she is an undocumented immigrant.