Lingui’s title roughly translates to ‘sacred bonds’ and, for a bit of time, Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s latest slice of social realism lets you puzzle out exactly what bonds it’s referring to – those between family members, or neighbours, or fellow believers at your local mosque? Eventually, though, it all clicks into place, Lingui revealing its hand as a loving ode to female sisterhood and solidarity, and the ways in which this togetherness is enacted and protected in societies that would sooner see it crushed and silenced.
After setting his last film in France, Haroun returns to his native Chad for Lingui, where single mother and metalwork artisan Amina (Achouackh Abakar) is having a very hard time reaching out to her 15-year-old daughter Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio), who has become distant and even been expelled from her school. As it transpires, Maria is pregnant and desperate for an abortion – an operation that is both risky and extremely expensive in the conservatively Islamic Chad. Stunned into an angry silence at first, Amina determines to save Maria, and so sets about finding the resources for the abortion, coming across a vast network of female kindness in the process.
It’s a sometimes moving but often underpowered story, where obstacles fade into the background as soon as the plot needs them to without much actual on-screen explanation. There are some genuinely gripping sequences, like when Amina is forced to ask her lecherous neighbour Brahim (Youssouf Djaoro) for some money, but there’s often a surfeit of subtlety and gentleness that keep Lingui from hitting as hard as it perhaps should. Some of this gentleness is welcome, of course, especially in the quiet evenings that Amina and Maria share at home, surrounded by their cat and dog (both of whom are adorably playful and hilariously small), but Lingui can be a pretty passive watch.
Even with its setting that we very rarely see on the big screen (pretty much only whenever Haroun himself comes out with a new film), there’s little to distinguish Lingui from any number of other social-realist films in its style, plotting, or quietly naturalistic performances. This isn’t inherently a bad thing (and might speak more to my relationship with the genre on the whole than Lingui’s individual qualities), but it would be nice to have been a bit more surprised by a new work from such a major name in international cinema.