Isabel Sandoval’s Lingua Franca made history in 2019 as the first film directed by and starring an openly trans woman of color to be screened at the Venice Film Festival. The film follows Olivia, an undocumented trans Filipina woman (played by Sandoval herself), who works as an in-house caregiver for an elderly Russian lady, Olga (Lynn Cohen), in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, while trying to secure a green card. The arrival of Olga’s mercurial grandson Alex (Eamon Farren) sparks a romance between them, albeit one perturbed by anxiety, given that Alex does not know Olivia’s undocumented status nor that she is trans.
The film is a historic feat of political representation, but lingering on this fact alone misses its deeper significance. In the beginning, Lingua Franca portends to be a social drama or a love story, but it ultimately leaves us with neither, in part because the mood-driven film does not offer traditional events or a conclusion, but rather unfolds through shifts in atmosphere as Olivia and Alex discover each other without ever fully connecting.
The importance of representation is typically told as a way for marginalized audiences to see characters who resemble themselves act as protagonists of their own stories, yet telling the story of Olivia, a woman who navigates the precarity of her life precisely through eluding notice, requires attending to the expressive content of what she leaves unseen and unstated.
Diligent in her work and willful in her desire, Olivia comes to us as an adult. She is a trans woman in the midst of an affair, but this is not a coming out story. When we meet her, she has been out for some time and has medically transitioned. She grapples with the daily threat of deportation and transphobic violence, but the film is uninterested in depicting her life through tropes of trauma or agency.
Near the end of the film, in an attempt to save their faltering relationship, Alex proposes to Olivia. She does not accept, but neither does she refuse; the film cuts away from the scene before we see her make a decision. Later, she references the aftermath of her decision in a phone call to her mother, giving us an abrupt and second-hand finale. The film’s non-climatic and non-cathartic ending, in addition to its introverted techniques, make it evade any single genre.
Sandoval’s understated performance and the film’s anti-climactic ending provoked discomfort among critics. One New York Times writer critiqued the “slightness” of the narrative and stated that Sandoval’s “aloof” acting “risks leaving Olivia unattended — an emotional question mark.” A Rolling Stone review remarked that while Sandoval creates an “incredible character” in Olivia, “you end up wishing you got to know her a little better, or at least spend more time with her as things gently glide to an ambiguous, circular ending.” Another critic noted that the film might be “too understated” and that it “ultimately runs out of steam just as it’s reaching its most compelling point, leaving us hanging emotionally.”
The critical reaction, while overwhelmingly positive, nonetheless expressed a desire for more. A more expressive and emotionally articulate character, a more decisive ending — this is what we expect from a strong protagonist. The stakes of this failure are heightened when thinking about the film as a work that redresses a lack of attention paid to the narratives of marginalized people. Criticism of its eschewal of a more traditional character and narrative structure thus becomes laden with a corollary critique of failing to do the work of representation.
Indeed, we tend to link the figure of the protagonist to conflict. The word protagonist combines the ancient Greek proto (“first in importance”) and agonist (“combatant, competitor, person engaged in a struggle, champion”). A character becomes a protagonist by externalizing themselves through actions that drive the narrative forward. As the most visible character, the protagonist offers an imaginative way of being at the center of a world. Movie-goers have become familiar with the trope of the “strong female protagonist” who becomes recognizable as such through her willful and courageous posture. She performs her feelings and thoughts upfront so that we may relate to — and even embody — her, even if we disagree. These women demonstrate a kind of wholeness: a transparent and seamless movement between inner principle and external action that is so often desired, yet rarely achieved in real life. Subjecthood is not a given; it’s constructed through a performance of agency that invites identification.
The character of Olivia is discomfiting because, while we may sympathize with her, she fails to register as a proper protagonist. She keeps her cards close to her chest. She does not readily externalize her emotions via her actions or words. Her decisive actions and most intimate correspondences are often not visually presented, occurring offscreen instead. Her opacity is a problem in the film, but it is also an opportunity to expand how subjecthood might be recognized.
We hear Olivia before we see her. The film begins with a ringing phone that wakes her in her darkened bedroom. It’s her mom from the Philippines, speaking in Cebu, her native tongue. Screams of children at a birthday party erupt in the background of the call, and their noise starkly juxtaposes with the early morning silence, sonically underlining the distance between the two women. Her mother asks when her allowance is arriving, as the electricity bill is due. Olivia responds with a familiar mixture of love and annoyance, reassuring her that the money should come by next Wednesday.
While mother and daughter talk over the phone, the camera pans outward, lingering over the still-dark streets of Brooklyn. The shots give an impression of the quiet before the storm: an empty fluorescent-lit Coney Island subway station, a boardwalk awash in soft periwinkle light, a commercial avenue lined with immigrant mom-and-pop stores. They are eerily empty of people. Despite their barrenness, these urban scenes feel intimate, blanketed by the sonic cocoon of Olivia’s drowsy voice. This private mother-daughter correspondence voiced over long, static shots of city spaces (a nod to Chantal Akerman’s News from Home) establishes the dissonant entanglements of Olivia’s life as an immigrant.
There is something both subversive and protective in the way that these voice-over conversations bring the public and private, the local and foreign, into strange embrace. The city becomes the architectural backdrop to Olivia’s most private conversations: phone calls with her mother back home, bedroom conversations with Alex in the early morning haze. They assert Olivia’s spatial belonging in the outlying immigrant neighborhoods of New York, rooted in presence, if not in the law. The reclamation of space does not happen loudly through a march or a riot but quietly through her routine movements: riding the subway, meeting friends, completing errands. Yet this belonging is both circumscribed by the ever-present fear of deportation and ghostly, laden with the voices of her unseen loved ones.
Just as these scenes claim space, so too do they retreat from it. The camera’s movement away from the scene of the conversation to the city emphasizes Olivia’s solitude, even amidst sociability, and suggests that something in herself also exceeds and wanders away from her relationships and their imperatives. In this pocket of solitude that she carves out for herself, she is both present and absent — a specter.
Absence is a condition of Olivia’s life as a laboring migrant. Near the beginning of the movie, Olga, who suffers from dementia, is puttering about the kitchen and becomes disoriented, momentarily forgetting where she is. She finds a note next to the home phone and calls the number scribbled on it, ringing Olivia, who is doing laundry in the basement and who realizes that Olga is having one of her dementia episodes. Without missing a beat, Olivia begins asking her leading questions to trigger buried memories attached to her environment (“Don’t you remember picking this wallpaper when your son Roman was born?”). Olga pauses, her voice softening as she comes to recognize her surroundings, guided back to herself by Olivia’s voice.
Olivia gains form as a subject through her care work, concretized by her voice over the phone. Out of sight in the basement, her presence is unseen but essential. The scene orients us to see Olivia not as distinct from her surroundings, but as its essential manager — the intelligence of the house, the keeper of Olga’s memories, the body-anchor mooring Olga to her home.
Her relationship to Olga evokes and stands in place of Olivia’s own biological mother, whom she is sending remittances to in the Philippines. In effect, Olivia is here because her mother is there. Her relationship with her mom is expressed not primarily through emotional but economic terms — care objectified into cash. We witness her phone calls assuaging her mother and the cardboard boxes she packs with gifts. We see her labor but not her mother, back home enjoying material comforts; we see the labor but not the fruit. Olivia’s labor does not advance a perceived plot and therefore may not register as “action,” yet it is still productive, creating the conditions for her mother and Olga to exist.
This structure of absence is not only a condition of Olivia’s life but a strategy of survival. When Alex spots a photo of a woman on the fridge, he asks if the woman is her sister. She was the former caregiver for Olga before he arrived, Olivia explains. Later on, she reveals that the woman didn’t stop working because he stepped in; she was detained by ICE and deported, Olivia explains, admitting her own fear of facing a similar fate. This revelation, motivated by a sense of vulnerability, both fills in and traces a lacuna from the earlier scene, underlining the fragility of Olivia’s existence. Under duress, obscuring herself is a form of self-protection.
Olivia’s carefully constructed solitude is punctured one day when Alex unwittingly discovers her passport, which features her outdated gender marker. Feeling shaken and betrayed, he keeps it. A day later, when she notices its absence, he leads her to believe that an ICE official had broken into her bedroom and taken her passport. She falls into an anxiety spiral and becomes increasingly paranoid, in turn relying on him for emotional support.
Whereas the use of voice-over had previously been used to expand her domestic interior to touch the cityscapes around her, it now begins to shrink her city and grip her with paranoia. The film embodies this visceral fear by playing radio broadcasts of ICE raids and Trump bloviating about his border wall while Olivia walks around the neighborhood and rides the subway. The conflict is both abstract and intimately felt: a constant intrusion into her mental and emotional life. By collapsing the outside and inside coordinates of her life, the use of voice-over induces a state of uncertainty and paranoia within Olivia and the viewer. The soft city begins to suffocate her.
Olivia’s fears are ever-present but unplaceable, which is precisely the source of their power over her. It is not so much deportation itself but the threat of being deportable that stalks her. Rather than being luxurious, the long shots of her city walking become ominous, taking on the surveilling eye of the state. Paranoia robs her of her ability to map herself within her larger environment and act with agency. The expression of her conflict is not action but paralysis.
The building tension comes to a head one evening when Alex, in a drunken good mood and with his Cheshire Cat smile, asks her to marry him. She considers the weight of his remark; marrying him would not only promise a lifetime of partnership but would also solve the problem of her legal status. But she doesn’t have her passport and cannot get married without it, she says. He interrupts again, on the verge of reassuring her that he has her passport, but stops, realizing that he is in hot water, and instead tells her not to worry, insisting again that they get married. But the cat is already out of the bag. While he embraces her, she looks past him grimly. The two physically embrace but gaze in opposite directions, occupied within their own heads — a posture that has defined their relationship.
The morning after finds them physically apart; he is smoking outside while she wakes up alone in the unforgiving grey light. When he enters the room, he tries to explain the night before, but she interrupts him and asks for her passport. He deflects but eventually returns it to her.
“I didn’t mean to hurt you,” he says. “I want to make this right. I wanna marry you. Isn’t that what you want?” A deep sense of injury is engraved in Olivia’s stony face as she sits in silence, refusing to end his groveling.
His words hang heavy in the air, asking Olivia to rise to the occasion and articulate what she actually wants — to confirm or deny his pleading provocation and affirm her own autonomy in the process. This is the moment we have been waiting for.
Yet Olivia says nothing. Alex desperately searches her face, but she does not return his gaze and instead stares off into an indeterminate point in the distance. She turns toward him but remains silent. The scene fades into darkness — one that lasts for so long that we are tempted to think the film has ended — until it gradually lightens again.
Instead of refusing his proposal and stating her own desires, Olivia ghosts him — a spectral form of refusal. Ghosting is an act that dispenses with closure; instead, it is an opting out, an absenting of self. She, in effect, falls outside of the romantic plot. We can only speculate on what was running through her mind in that moment of decision. But the consequences are such that Olivia does not reveal any more of herself — her feelings of betrayal, her reason for leaving him— to him or to the viewer.
The interval of darkness signals a transition into a new stage, albeit one that resembles the very beginning. We are back in the city of her solitude. It’s nighttime. Ahead, a wide, empty road is illuminated by a single street lamp. Tiny snowflakes begin to flurry. Two overhead trains, one lagging behind the other, cut through the scene, their low rumbling amplifying the quiet desolation of the street. Her ghosting is not simply a negation of presence but a withdrawal into a separate space, one she can inhabit without running the risk of visibility.
For a final time, Olivia’s disembodied voice hovers across the city. She is addressing her mom, returning a missed call. She apologizes for not getting back to her sooner, telling her that her money should be arriving soon, that she has been very busy working overtime at her new job to buy gifts for the family, and that the new man whom her friend introduced her to is interested in entering into a green card marriage.
From these few sentences, we learn that she has ended her relationship with Alex and quit her job as Olga’s caregiver; two massive changes that dramatically shift the organization of her life. More events transpire in the darkness of a single shot than in the entire preceding narrative. Yet they are not fully fleshed out as proper events but obliquely referenced in a phone call. In this communication, sparse in detail, what is unstated and unseen carries the most dramatic weight. Alex is erased; their turbulent love affair becomes an ellipsis.
Olivia exerts her power as a character through what she refuses to make visible and known. Alex’s betrayal was in glimpsing a secret that she had chosen not to reveal and holding that information hostage from her. Knowledge constitutes the violation. In reaction, to restore a sense of her safety, she denies him any further access to herself. More than that, she denies us, the viewer, access to herself, implicating us in that which threatens her and registering the voyeuristic demands of the camera.
While viewers may yearn to see her act out — to seize control by rejecting Alex and act as the “protagonist of her own life” — doing so would disclose more than may be worth the risk. Instead of reading the ambiguity of the ending and the inscrutability of Olivia as failures of storytelling, then, we might see this absence as both a condition of her diasporic life and a strategy of survival. Rather than dramatize the difficulties Olivia faces, Lingua Franca ultimately coheres around the difficulty of knowing her and locates that difficulty — her refusal to be fully seen or known — as the source of her integrity. Indeed, Olivia feels most compelling, most true to the exigencies of her life and those of millions of others, when she is out of sight.