It's interesting that it was only halfway through the writing process for 'Litigante' that writer and director Franco Lolli, decided to approach the subject of his own mother's battle with cancer. I say interesting because as empowering female character pieces go, the film is superb, and yet it would not be the same without the structural core of Silvia's mother's illness. If nothing else, it proves that the women who surrounded Lolli during his life and creative process are strong and enduring figures.
A French and Colombian collaboration, 'Litigante' centres on the personal and professional turmoils of Silvia, played by Lolli's cousin and well-known Columbian author Carolina Sanin, who has to confront not only a public work scandal but her sick mother who refuses treatment, a five-year-old son with no father in the picture, and a new romance on the horizon. If Silvia's life were like a scarf, each thread is seen to be holding on to dear life to the point of suffocation, and yet every tug of the thread untangles it further. She may be a talented lawyer and a mum who just wants to do right by her son, but the challenges and complexities she faces within her life start to test her womanhood, her loyalties and her relationships.
While some may - justifiably - argue that a man should not be behind the lens of a female story, Lolli proves that he is more than capable. Of course, I am not a woman and cannot speak on their behalf, and I would love to know what women generally think of this film, but for me, Lolli achieved his goal. At the centre of this film is a single working mum, who may sometimes spread toxicity, but is ultimately fighting for the survival of her intuition. Lolli set out to recreate some of his life experiences, but still manages to avoid taking his audience on a therapy session.
Sanin is a writer, not an actress, but you would never know it. Originally brought on board as a casting director, she insisted on auditioning, and the part was hers. This film is all the better for it, as she brings a completely natural and authentic embodiment of the character to the screen, perfectly matching the tones of the film. It is not over-acted because it can't be, with most of the words being improvised on set. It's her strong shoulders that this film sits on, and there is barely a frame in the film that Silvia is not present in. 'Litigante' is strung together by all these small, tender character moments, and yet flows like one long chapter in Silvia's life. She plays the part with integrity, realism, and most importantly, an unwavering endurance.
It may only be halfway through 2020, but I can categorically announce that the award for best child actor this year goes to Antonio Martinez, who plays his namesake Antonio, the five-year-old son of Silvia. He is absolutely phenomenal throughout the film, bringing so much joy to his already present childish innocence. He is so sweet, and carries with him a beautiful and infectious spirit that can be felt by all those around him. What's more impressive is that, according to Lolli, his lines were also improvised, which shows that his nurturing and positive energy was completely genuine. It really shines on the screen, and you get the sense that he would have been an absolute delight to deal with in between takes.
If Silvia's life were like a scarf, each thread is seen to be holding on to dear life to the point of suffocation, and yet every tug of the thread untangles it further.
One of the more tender scenes in the film is when the family gather to shave the grandmother's hair, played in the film by Lolli's real-life mother Leticia Gomez, and it is such a powerful and uplifting snapshot of the kind of struggles a family must overcome in this situation. Like Sanin, Gomez brings such an authenticity to the film, and is aided by the improvisational structure of the script. Yes, the improvising shows, but not in a lazy way. The pauses, body movements and organic nature of the words give a real sense of family relationships and their subsequent tensions, especially during the war of words often exchanged between mother and daughter. There is a rhythm and a purpose to every word and every glance, which is no easy achievement, but one that Lolli overcomes through an unflinching lens.
What may feel unnecessary or overindulgent at first always pays off, as Lolli is careful to never waste moments, great examples of which can be found everywhere throughout the film. It can be very dangerous when your entire film is focused on a single entity, but by introducing various aspects of the people in Silvia's life the film never tires, continuing to bring fresh and vivid perspectives of how Silvia responds to those closest to her. She endures, and her inner circle endure her, but ultimately everyone wants what is best, all trying their hardest to be the ideal version of themselves. That may be through navigating a moral compass, or in the grandmother's case, by living life to the fullest, even if it results in a shortened lifespan. Whatever the challenges may be, and however difficult maintaining the relationships proves, it is the sheer love and will of the characters that command the screen and allow the audience to care for the characters.
This is Lolli's second feature film after 'Rodri', and it debuted opening at the Cannes Critics Week in 2019. I really hope 'Litigante' finds its audience, because there is so much to love about this picture. This is an authentic and tender exploration of a family, bookended with delicate - and seemingly organic - family moments. It will leave you smiling, reflective, teary, and hopefully above all else, inspired.