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‘So Much Tenderness’ Review: Minimalist Drama Shines Light on Different Stage of Immigrant Experience

TIFF: Lina Rodríguez's film about a Colombian woman rebuilding her life in Toronto highlights struggle of forever feeling out of place.

So Much Tenderness

“So Much Tenderness”

Mongrel Media

There are many stories about the immigrant experience, and when it comes to ones centering on the Latinx community, many of them sadly focus on the trauma of the immigration itself — crossing borders, being threatened by immigration authorities, facing racism as you try to adjust — or on the multigenerational effect of immigration years down the line. But rarely do we see a film about what happens in between these two things, what it’s like after you migrate, after you have found a routine and settled down and adapted to your new home, and the daily struggles of not really feeling like you belong anywhere, feeling fragmented and divided between two places. Lina Rodríguez’s latest film, “So Much Tenderness” shines a poignant light on the long-lasting disorientation and fragmentation of the immigrant experience, making the audience feel as out of place as its protagonist.

This sense of discomfort and disorientation is present already from the opening scene, where we follow Aurora (Noëlle Schönwald), who meets with a white woman and her husband, before stepping into the trunk of their car in complete silence, seemingly afraid of something. There is barely a word spoken in the first 15 minutes of the film, there is no score at all, no relief from the tension, forcing the audience to ponder just what is going on here. Is she being kidnapped or helped? It isn’t until the couple reaches the Canadian border that we understand they were smuggling Aurora.

Turns out, she was an environmental lawyer back in Colombia, but when her husband was murdered under mysterious circumstances (the film implies her communication with corrupt companies maybe having something to do with it, but no clear answers are given), Aurora left her life, her family, and her daughter behind to seek a second chance.

Though we do see her navigate the immigration process and face the scrutiny of Canadian authorities as she applies for refugee status, the film is not really interested in that. Instead, we skip past the adjustment period and jump forward in time by six years to reunite with Aurora after she’s already settled in, found a stable job and a group of friends, and is now living with her daughter in Toronto. Here lies the biggest strength in “So Much Tenderness,” as Lina Rodríguez decides to skip the story many of us know. Rather than showing the start of the immigration story, she shows how such a life-changing event stays with you and informs every aspect of your daily life even years after the fact. We see this in Aurora, a woman who now has a life, friends, a job, a community, and a hot boyfriend, but is never fully comfortable. Both she and her daughter have built new lives for themselves, but they can’t shake the traumatic and painful tragedy that forced them to abandon their homes in the first place.

We don’t see big dramatic moments from similar films, like the threat of losing your visa, or getting deported, or the tension of crossing the border, but rather the unpleasantness or the mundane. How you’re always asked where you’re from based on your accent, how your job, your education, your station back home doesn’t translate to your new home (Aurora is working as a Spanish teacher when she used to be a lawyer). How the only line of communication you have to your home country and loved ones is a phone call. In some ways, this feels like a spiritual follow-up to the film “Blast Beat,” another Colombian film that captured the smaller details of everyday life as an immigrant.

Here, Rodríguez places a big emphasis on language, particularly on the Spanish version of the verb “to be,” which in Spanish is split into two separate verbs, one that indicates a temporary state “how you are,” versus a permanent start “what you are.” This film is all about the impossibility of that permanent state when you’re an immigrant, how everything about you splits up, merges, morphs, and ultimately comes out different because of the experience. In that regard, a scene featuring two characters talking in Spanglish results in one of the best portrayals of the language in recent memory, with the two characters bouncing from Spanish to English mid-conversation, first mixing in words, then phrases, then entire answers going from one language to the next.

To emphasize the feeling of uneasiness, “So Much Tenderness” is devoid of a musical score that can provide an emotional out. Likewise, a slow, not entirely linear editing helps disorient the viewer so that they feel like Aurora does, with memories of her time in Colombia flooding her at seemingly random moments.

Now, it must be said that, while the film positions itself as the story of a woman trying to rebuild her life before someone from her traumatic past threatens to derail it all, “So Much Tenderness” doesn’t really care about that. The past does influence the present, but the film avoids finding cheap thrills with a story of revenge or danger. Instead, it opts for a quieter, hyper-specific yet still quite universal story of trying to make a new life for yourself, while being unable to fully disconnect from your previous one.

Grade: C+

“So Much Tenderness” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. It does not yet have U.S. distribution. 

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