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‘Lingui, the Sacred Bonds’ Review: A Powerful Abortion Drama Honors the Resilience of Chad’s Women

The mother of a pregnant teen asks the women of her community for help in Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s slender yet riveting powerhouse.

Lingui, The Sacred Bonds

“Lingui, The Sacred Bonds”



Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. MUBI releases the film in select theaters on Friday, February 4.

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s slender yet riveting “Lingui, the Sacred Bonds” is a story about a woman trying to secure an abortion for her 15-year-old daughter in a country where terminating a pregnancy violates both national and religious laws, but — as its title suggests in two different languages — this soft hammer of a social drama is less concerned with the cruelties of Chad’s politics than it is with how people help each other to endure them together.

“Lingui” is a Chadian term that represents a tradition of altruism; a collective resilience in the face of catastrophic ordeals. When a group of young men wordlessly pull the teenage Maria (Rihane Khalil-Alio) out from a riverbed after she tries to drown herself, that is lingui. When Maria’s mother Amina (Achouackh Abakar Soulymane) agrees to aid her estranged sister at a moment of irrevocable crisis, that is lingui. When Maria’s school, afraid of how gossip might reflect on them, expels the girl the minute they learn of her delicate condition… that is why lingui is so necessary.

And that is hardly the most pressing reason, as there are more predatory forces afoot — many of them in the guise of helpers, and virtually all of them male. As it stands, Amina and Maria are not exactly helpless on their own. Only thirty-something-years-old but worn down from the shunning that she once endured as a child herself, Amina lives with her daughter on the outskirts of N’djamena provides for them both by selling wire stoves that she makes by hacking out the metal from discarded car tires with a machete (a brutal process that Haroun’s steady camera sees for all of its hardship). It’s not enough to afford a clandestine abortion, which costs roughly 1,000 USD, but it’s enough not to exist at someone else’s mercy.

When she isn’t working, Amina is busy deflecting marriage offers from her gray-haired neighbor Brahim (Youssouf Djaoro) and being reassured by her local imam that “anyone with a problem can call on his help.” We understand why Amina might doubt that; seeing Amina forced to pray on a patch of dirt outside of the mosque doesn’t inspire confidence that her ultra-conservative religious community ever has a woman’s best interests at heart. This is a modern world in the grip of ancient struggles, and while Amina and Maria are connected to the 21st century through the earbuds of their iPods, Haroun’s unsentimental gaze suggests a kind of folkloric timelessness.

That timelessness is expressed in ways both sublime (the vibrant outfits that pop against the dusty streets) and tragic (internalized misogyny, handed down through the generations like a family heirloom). Maria knows that people think of any single mom as “a loose woman,” and she’d rather die than follow in her mother’s loving footsteps. It’s why she pushes Amina away, turns only to her giant teddy bear for solace, and refuses to identify the man who impregnated her. That mystery remains unexplored for most of the movie’s running time, as Haroun focuses instead on the hard labor of finding help, and the logistics of the sisterhood that provide it.

Each scene is hacked down to a fleshy husk of desperation, and basic shots of Amina crossing the street or eying the murky potions on a midwife’s shelf are made all the more gripping for how they unfold in broad daylight (Soulymane’s performance adds texture to even the film’s most passive moments). There are occasional sequences of more dramatic urgency — a nighttime escape from an abortion clinic is as suspenseful as any thriller — but even they reflect the simple poeticism that elevates Haroun’s storytelling above the “isn’t this awful?” moral instruction of the issue movie “Lingui” never becomes.

A breathless climactic sequence set in a maze of back alleys is perhaps the most lucid example of the fine line Haroun toes between metaphor and reality, as Amina and her daughter are effectively hounded by a minotaur in a labyrinth that may not even have a way out. The danger couldn’t be more immediate, and yet the scene unfolds on a vaguely mythic register that allows it to carve out a more abstract feeling of inescapability without reducing these characters to mere representations for their plights (a clear and present danger amid a dagger-short film in which every line is delivered with the bluntness of a parable).

The entrancing space that “Lingui” notches between personal circumstance and elemental strife mirrors the balance Haroun strikes between his spartan approach to narrative and newfound visual command (the lush saturation of Mathieu Giombini’s cinematography helps distinguish this from even the best of Haroun’s earlier films, such as “Grigris” and “A Screaming Man”). It also allows Haroun to arrive at the perfect grace note for a story that would risk betraying the harsh reality faced by Chad’s women if it resolved with a fairy tale ending.

Amina and Maria aren’t going to topple the patriarchy by terminating a single pregnancy or convince the local imam to reconsider how he wields his faith. The danger that threatens Haroun’s characters today will still threaten them tomorrow, maybe even with a more violent sense of entitlement than before. But lingui can only exist in the face of great hardship, and Haroun’s surprisingly cathartic film honors the tradition by celebrating the fact that it still does.

Grade: B+

“Lingui, the Sacred Bonds” premiered in Competition at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. 

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