Any movie that deals with the effect of terminal illness on a family will now have to stand in the towering shadow of Lulu Wang's The Farewell. That story certainly looms large over Franco Lolli's Colombian drama Litigante, in which the worsening illness of a family's cantankerous matriarch sends those in her orbit into the walls of a complicated emotional labyrinth.
Most notably struggling in the wake of the ornery Leticia's (Leticia Gómez) terminal lung cancer diagnosis is her daughter Silvia (Carolina Sanin). A civil servant working as a legal adviser in a department responsible for allocating public funds, she's in the midst of a highly-publicised investigation over the dodgy-looking award of a lucrative construction contract. She finds herself grilled over the deal on the radio, only to meet the tough interviewer (Vladimir Durán) later at a party and form a romantic bond with him.
Litigante is a tangled family drama, anchored by a pair of strong performances by non-professional actors Gómez and Sanin. Their antagonistic, but loving, bond is believable from the start and both imbue their work with subtle details that deepen and enrich their characters. One scene in which Gómez lets out several strangled whimpers while reaching out to cuddle her dog is a telltale moment in which her authoritarian facade is allowed to slip into unguarded fear at her medical predicament.
The film operates within a fairly loose narrative structure, in which Lolli allows different subplots to ebb and flow around the spectre of Leticia's illness. The title of the film — “litigant” in English — refers to Silvia's legal profession, shared by her mother, and comes to the fore in the tangle of political misconduct within which she has become entangled. It's very much a sideshow of a story, though, and serves little propulsive purpose in the narrative.
In fact, this element of the story only intrudes once Lolli depicts the ways in which Silvia's familial difficulties bleed into her professional life. This element of Litigante feels sadly under-cooked, despite another strong performance by child actor Antonio Martinez as Silvia's son. The same is true of her relationship with Durán's journalist, which has an intriguing tension at the heart of it that could easily have powered an entire movie, but here is shunted aside repeatedly whenever it threatens to bubble to the surface.
The movie is on its strongest ground when it focuses on the intimate details of Leticia and Silvia's changing mother-daughter bond. The former's worsening health coincides with the latter's escalating levels of stress, with tensions rising and falling as sympathies overcome grudges. There's a moment of exquisite joy in the midst of the suffering as family members gather around Leticia's bedside for Christmas — a smartly-observed oasis at the heart of a challenging story.
As a result of its rather uneven storytelling, Litigante ultimately feels like something of an unsatisfying movie. For all of its emotional high points and stellar performances, it lacks the fundamental punch and coherence that would've made it truly special. With too many narrative loose ends, Lolli's movie often feels like one in search of plot rather than one content to focus on its potent central narrative conceit.
Dir: Franco Lolli
Scr: Franco Lolli, Marie Amachoukeli-Barsacq, Virginie Legeay
Prd: Toufik Ayadi, Christophe Barral, Franco Lolli, Sylvie Pialat, Benoît Quainon
DOP: Luis Armando Arteaga
Music: Pierre Desprats
Run time: 93 mins
Litigante is available via Curzon Home Cinema from 10th July.