Cannes 2024 Review: Matthew Rankin’s “Universal Language” is a Beautiful Ice Breaker

“Winnipeg is a strange destination for tourists,” a fellow passenger on a bus tells Matthew (Matthew Rankin), who seems to know this all too well in “Universal Language,” now feeling like one himself despite growing up in the city. His childhood home on Elm Street has been reclaimed by an Iranian family, among the growing Persian community in the heart of Manitoba and while he can string a few sentences together in Farsi, it doesn’t come naturally. That could’ve been a frustration that prompted him to once leave, but Rankin, the writer/director who previously found the way to make sense of Canadian political history with the deliriously absurdist “The Twentieth Century,” sees the beauty in a cultural transformation, making no secret of reconciling his own feelings about the evolution of his hometown by casting himself at the center of a tale in which he becomes enchanted by the possibilities of what he no longer knows about a place that was so familiar.

Mr. Bilodeau (Mani Soleymanlou), the man sitting to Matthew’s left on the bus is actually introduced before we meet Matthew, far more eager to get out of town when he’s fed up as a teacher at an elementary school where he has no control over his class. In the film’s striking opening shot, the young students run amok as Mr. Bilodeau makes his way inside, and presented from afar, peering into a window to show the classroom, the chaos is what one might imagine as a local, adjusting to an influx of a recent wave of immigrants. Mr. Bilodeau is hardly compassionate once the young students take their seats, upset that the predominantly Persian class hasn’t yet picked up French and trains his ire on Omid (Sobhan Javadi), a late arrival that day who can’t see the chalkboard after losing his glasses out in the snow (thought to be stolen by one of the roaming turkeys that swan around outside). Class actually ends with the teacher threatening everyone in the room with expulsion until Omid gets his glasses back, a tall task when the student has already mentioned how difficult it was for his father to afford the first pair, working three jobs.

Unbeknownst to him, Omid’s classmate Negin (Rojina Esmaeili) and her sister Nazgol (Saba Vahedyousefi) happen upon a 500 rial bill frozen near the school that they believe could pay for new glasses, forming the main through line for “Universal Language” as they spend the day attempting to liberate it from the ice, wandering around town with the hopes of borrowing an axe. Matthew ends up circling the city as well when his bus breaks down, and the three, all not entirely accepted by the community that has taken shape, start to get a real lay of the land. However, to give such a straightforward synopsis of what Rankin accomplishes narratively would be to ignore the film’s greater achievements as the director’s surrealist humor is completely attuned to a story of cultural alienation as an Iranian-Canadian-run Tim Horton’s enforces rules about outside food such as Khartoum jam being allowed on the premises yet appears more like a cafe in Tehran and malls abandoned during the 1980s when there was a downturn in the economy are now looked upon with wonder as a tour guide leads new residents through. (In one of the film’s loveliest conceits, some of the most important monuments in town reside next to the freeway where those who stop to look are rewarded while cars zip past.)

In a film where any feeling of foreignness is meant to wear off, the design of “Universal Language” is particularly poignant as its pronounced style starts to give way to something more intimate. Distant shots start to become close-ups and Rankin and co-writers Ila Firouzabadi and Pirouz Nemati find a way to recast the generally hackneyed structure of random characters whose connections to one another start to become clearer in the service of a genuinely moving idea when a true community starts to form with each person in it adding value. Amidst all the scenes of buildings that have seen better days still forming the city skyline, Rankin looks to the ground to find where the real growth can occur and already sees something beautiful start to blossom.

“Universal Language” will screen again at the Cannes Film Festival as part of Directors Fortnight on May 19th at 11:30 am at the Cinema Alexandre III, 4:30 pm at the Cinema Le Raimu and 10:30 pm at Cinema Les Arcades/Salle 1.

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