“When a language dies,” George Steiner once wrote, “a possible world dies with it.” The tragedy of an extinct tongue isn’t only the loss of some collective human memory, but the extinguishment of humankind’s potential to imagine beyond the constraints of the physical world.
Director Ernesto Contreras’s I Dream in Another Language begins as an elegant translation of Steiner’s argument into an accessible narrative: A young linguist, Martín (Fernando Álvarez Rebeil), travels to a remote Mexican village to record the last three speakers of an endangered language known as Zikril. Intimately connected with the belief system of its indigenous speakers, Zikril—which was invented for this film—reputedly allows them to communicate with the animals of the forest. Martín’s attempt to catalogue this tongue thus necessarily involves an effort to understand a unique way of experiencing the world. The filmmakers cleverly juxtapose Martín’s quasi-mystical endeavor with local girl Lluvia’s (Fátima Molina) English instructions broadcast on a community radio station—a purely functional reduction of language into a set of handy phrases like “I need work.”
With picturesque scenery and a magical-realist touch, Contreras at first offers a tantalizing exploration of the profound multifariousness of language systems. But just as the director seems to be settling in to tackle some heady ideas, the screenplay’s stale narrative complications instead overtake the film. After one of the three Zikril speakers dies, Martín is left with only Evaristo (Eligio Meléndez) and Isauro (Manuel Poncelis), two estranged friends—and, as we later learn, one-time lovers—who haven’t spoken to each other in 50 years. To save Zikril for posterity, Martín must uncover the secret of Evaristo and Isauro’s divisiveness and bring the men together.
The two men are one-note characters largely defined by their surliness, and so their feud never registers as more than a screenplay contrivance, a problem just waiting to be solved. This narrative focus frustratingly reduces the intriguing ideas teased in the film’s opening stretch to mere window dressing for a rote story of belated reconciliation that offers no new spin on the venerable theme of society’s repression of sexuality. The eschatology of the Zikril speakers is exploited for canned redemption, while their language—the ostensible subject of the film—becomes a mere metaphor for a shared secret past. Contreras is ultimately less interested in the metaphysical challenges posed by language than in using it as a narrative device.
Steiner has observed that “[e]very human tongue challenges reality in its own unique manner.” I Dream in Another Language may have created a tongue of its own, but that’s something the film, with its thin characters, pre-fabricated plotting, and under-explored ideas, categorically fails to do.