Cinema Without Borders: Universal Language—The social weave

In this weekly column, the writer explores the non-Indian films that are making the right noise across the globe. This week, we talk about Matthew Rankin’s Universal Language
Cinema Without Borders:  Universal Language—The social weave

It’s difficult to find suitable words to describe Matthew Rankin’s Persian-language, Canadian film, Universal Language, without diminishing its original vision and singular whimsicality. It’s peopled with quirky characters who are also as ordinary as they come. It’s situated in an unusual space where Tehran and Winnipeg collide and conjoin, yet it feels like a friendly neighbourhood world that could be right outside your own doorstep. Here time sets aside its own essential linearity as past, present, and future roll into each other. Yet there’s consonance and interconnectedness in the seemingly divergent and deviating narratives and a thread of realism that runs right through the fanciful, fablesque form.

A lot appears to happen all at once. A turkey runs away with a child’s spectacles. His friends Negin and Nazgol go on the lookout for it, chance upon money frozen in ice and go on a mission to find an axe or shovel to dig it out with. Quite like the child’s quest to return the school notebook back to his classmate in Abbas Kiarostami’s 1987 film, Where Is the Friend’s House? Meanwhile, travel guide Massoud, who is always wearing earmuffs, takes utterly disinterested tour groups through the most uncelebrated sites of Winnipeg. Meanwhile, Matthew decides to quit his job with the government of Quebec in Montreal to come back home to his long-forgotten and ailing mother in Winnipeg. Without them being aware of it, all these characters, their relationships and their lives are bound to each other in unforeseen but heartening ways.

Rankin is resolutely absurdist in his imagination and aesthetic. There are turkeys running riot in the human habitations and taking part in beauty contests even as a man dressed as a christmas tree wanders around pointlessly and a school student imitates Groucho Marx. On the one hand, there is a young man choking to death in a marshmallow eating contest, on the other there is a Kleenex Conservatory looming large, with no correlation between the two, while the Canadian band, The Guess Who’s popular song “These Eyes” plays on as the background score.

Much of the uniqueness of Rankin’s ideas comes to life thanks to an equally distinctive production design by Louisa Schabas and art direction by Chad Giesbrecht and Roger Martin. The action transpires largely in expressionistic sets more than in outdoor locales. The land of diverse ethnicities that it is, Canada gets swathed in Persian shades of its Iranian immigrant population, a large chunk of which lives in Quebec. Everyone speaks Farsi, every signage is in Farsi and even a typically Canadian chain like Tim Hortons can’t escape getting the Persian edge. Inverse cultural appropriation if there ever was one.

Universal Language had its world premiere in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar at Cannes and won its first-ever audience award. It’s not hard to fathom why. Rankin takes a few snide digs at the government—“Strong economy helps prevent feelings of worthlessness”, reads a poster—even as he deftly knits together the different disparate strands to create a heart-tugging and uplifting tapestry of innocence and humanity, unity and solidarity, friendship, kinship, and community spirit. Ironic then that at the start of the film, a character bemoans that “there is little hope for human survival”. Rankin’s point is that there clearly is, that too in our interconnectedness. That Tehran and Winnipeg could well be one. 

The cathartic finale is feel-good at its most distilled, pure and unalloyed. That celebrates mothers and sons, real as well as adopted families, be they the ones you are born into or surrogate. Not to forget countries, cultures and identities. Universal Language is truly transcendental cinema. A wholesome iteration of the essential faith in humanity. 

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