Saturday, June 22, 2024

“UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE”

THE STORYTwo women find frozen cash, try to retrieve it. A tour guide leads confused tourists around Winnipeg sites. A man quits his job, visits his mother. Storylines intertwine surreally as identities blur in a disorienting comedy.

THE CASTMatthew Rankin, Mani Soleymanlou & Danielle Fichaud

THE TEAMMatthew Rankin (Director/Writer), Ila Firouzabadi & Pirouz Nemati (Writers)

THE RUNNING TIME – 89 Minutes


For all its eccentricities, Winnipeg is often cited as the most beguiling city in Canada. Frequently proclaimed by Ontarians as the Weird Uncle metropolis, the municipality’s rich counter-cultural foundation expands through decades of systemic resistance. Louis Riel, the founder of Manitoba, was executed by John A Macdonald’s colonial government. Riel advocated for the Métis people and the protection of their social, cultural, and political status.  In 1919, thousands of factory workers demanded the rights to collective bargaining, a wage increase, and improved work conditions. The act of resistance corresponded with the largest strike in Canada’s history. Winnipeg’s factories, shops, and trains shuttered in solidarity. The city would collapse once again by a natural reckoning in 1950 with the Red River flood. Thousands of Winnipeg homes were destroyed and damaged, resulting in an inevitable forced evacuation and reconstruction of the city’s quotidian operations. Even at its peak inundation, Winnipeg always seems to survive every cataclysmic blow. Akin to Guy Maddin’s kaleidoscopic essay film “My Winnipeg” (2007), the city’s vast history unites the populace through the preservation of history. It is ultimately the power of the people who reconcile with the city’s boundless collection of stories and abstract memories.

For Matthew Rankin, history looms over his immaculate filmography. Before exploring the realm of experimental dramas and photo-chemical abstractions, Rankin once studied Québec History at McGill and the University of Laval. In each of his shorts and commissioned works, references regarding Canada’s haunted past infiltrate his idiosyncratic narratives. In both “Mynarski Death Plummet” (2015) and “The Tesla World Light” (2017), history revolving around heroism & innovation provides the gateway to cinematic abstraction. His films deviate from traditional filmmaking modes, revitalizing techniques that Norman McLaren and his NFB colleagues pioneered. The form emulates the past, as Rankin’s exposed celluloid resurrects his country’s antiquity.  In his latest feature, “Universal Language,” Rankin carries his camera into the present, infusing his own memories of childhood diaspora.

“Universal Language” is a film all about the beauty of intersectionality. Throughout the cryptic chronology of languid events, Rankin toys with his timeline of interconnected characters. The lives and cultural backgrounds of a compassionate tour guide, a disgruntled French immersion school teacher, a soul-shattered embodiment of Rankin’s persona, and two adorable schoolgirls intersect within Winnipeg’s vast neighborhoods and Persian communities. The theme of intersectionality permeates the narrative form. For example, a shift in accents signifies a departure from one’s homeland. The cinematographic and sonic differences between provinces provide the comedic misdirection. “Universal Language” evokes a distinct deadpan flare during the Montreal segments by representing the francophone province as a cesspool of bureaucratic misery. At the crux of the punchline, the film evokes a Roy Andersson-esque pastiche. The governmental facility is decorated with an Orwellian portrait of Premier François Legault. A public servant weeps in his cubicle. 

The satirical edge coincides with the visual juxtaposition of the Red River homeland. The concrete beige of the brutalist buildings is accompanied by the angelic fall of soft snow. Ironically, Winnipeg’s neo-liberalist design provides the film’s sardonic edge. A tour guide roams through an empty shopping mall, a rundown fountain, and a historic Louis Riel monument located in between a dangerous highway intersection. The locals grieve a few steps away from the free-way expansion, where a cemetery of industrialized splendor rests a few kilometers away from the local Tim Hortons. The monopolized coffee shop symbolizes a tranquil neutral ground, where people of different dissents practice their traditions with an inexpensive cup of patriotic joe.

Amidst the mundanity, the residents reclaim their seemingly insignificant history. Locations and artifacts, once exploited by the corporate zeitgeist, evolve into landmarks emblematic of cultural significance. The preservation of a lost briefcase is designated as a heritage site. Anglophonic corporate iconography intersects with the Persian text, as brands such as Old Dutch Chips & Canadian Tire bring the viewer closer to Rankin’s memories. The specificity stokes the film’s family-oriented drama. It’s no wonder that Rankin himself proclaimed the film as an “autobiographical hallucination.” “Universal Language” is almost like a cinematic venn-diagram, influxing recurring images, memories & cultural references from Iran, Quebec, and Manitoba into a singular intersectional portrait. Rankin pays homage to the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (better known as Kanoon), an Iranian institute that produced family-friendly Persian pictures before & after the cultural revolution. Films such as “The Runner” (1985) and “Where is the Friend’s House?” (1987) are analogous of interpersonal story-beats found within Rankin’s intricate tapestry.

As aforementioned, Rankin’s passionate influences are vast, referencing Canada’s archives of government PSAs and miscellaneous National Film Board of Canada productions. The precise time period of the film is buried in suspended animation. Isabelle Stachtchenko’s utilization of 16mm color-negative stock provides a delicate & disorienting texture. Old computer stations and other retro-futurist designs coyly confound the atmosphere, resulting in a timeless aesthetic interconnected with our collective memory of long-past Canadian iconography. The motif of intersectionality also occurs when the paths of humans and animals coincide. In a comedic anecdote, a Turkey rides a bus from Montreal to Winnipeg with a paid ticket. The humans bicker in the presence of the respectful fowl, an animal who purchased its ride by winning an Avian beauty pageant.

Rankin’s self-referential amalgamation concludes with a sublime finale, weaponizing his carefully assembled motifs to unveil the hidden truths of a shared diaspora. “Universal Language” celebrates compassion, understanding, and the perseverance of the human condition. As one character beautifully states: “Together they flow into Lake Winnipeg; we are all connected.” Rankin lingers in a warm embrace shared by strangers, unified by their co-existence. The beauty of Canadian cinema isn’t solely indebted to the extravagance of our province’s lush landscapes but rather an empathetic representation of its diverse people. The lifeblood of Canadian culture is bound by our collectiveness — Indigenous & Immigrant stories, which deconstruct the postcolonial gaze. We share the land as we speak our words of compassion. Matthew Rankin’s latest feature is pure cinematic bliss, rejecting any semblance of corporate storytelling while commemorating the beauty of Winnipeg’s isolated communities.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Beautifully encapsulates the peculiarity of intersectionality. Matthew Rankin's idiosyncratic and personal vision illuminates the Persian populace of Canada by cleverly referencing different national cinemas. A harrowing and tranquil testament to the human condition. A showcase of empathy and compassion in the most unlikely of places.

THE BAD - Just a smidge more Turkey representation would have elevated Rankin's perfect balance of humor and desolation.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - Best International Feature

THE FINAL SCORE - 9/10

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Beautifully encapsulates the peculiarity of intersectionality. Matthew Rankin's idiosyncratic and personal vision illuminates the Persian populace of Canada by cleverly referencing different national cinemas. A harrowing and tranquil testament to the human condition. A showcase of empathy and compassion in the most unlikely of places.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>Just a smidge more Turkey representation would have elevated Rankin's perfect balance of humor and desolation.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b><a href="/oscar-predictions-best-international-feature/">Best International Feature</a><br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>9/10<br><br>"UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE"