Movies · Reviews

‘Lingui, The Sacred Bonds’ is a Profound and Concise Must-See Film

Chad’s official entry for the Oscars’ Best International Feature Film award follows a mother’s unrelenting effort to help her daughter obtain an abortion.
Lingui The Sacred Bond
By  · Published on February 4th, 2022

Concise and profound, Lingui, The Sacred Bonds enthralls through all of its 87 minutes. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun‘s deliberately crafted tale masterfully forefronts the personal without sacrificing the film’s broader subversion of patriarchal systems. All moviegoers should see the film, which is Chad’s (non-nominated) official entry for Best International Feature Film for this year’s Academy Awards, as soon as they can.

Lingui, The Sacred Bonds follows a mother and daughter living on the outskirts of N’Djamena, the capital city of Chad. Amina (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane) earns a living selling hand-crafted wire stoves, made from repurposed metal that she harvests from old tires. She lives alone with her 15-year-old daughter, Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio), to whom she gave birth as a teenager out of wedlock. The pregnancy brought with it a host of religious and cultural taboos, leaving Amina to live as an outcast, where her past resurfaces at a moment’s notice.

One day, history begins to repeat itself. School officials expel Maria after they learn she is pregnant. Her compelling sense of family history informs her response. Maria knows how society treats women like her mother. She knows what people will think and say about her. She knows that having a child essentially means ruining her own life, or at the very least the life she knows and wants. Maria tells her mother she wants an abortion.

At first, Amina refuses. Abortions are against Islamic teachings and illegal in Chad. The penalties of getting caught are severe. But Maria refuses to do anything but take her life into her own hands. Her persistence convinces Amina, who quickly does everything she can to help her daughter terminate the pregnancy.

The potential effects of their pursuit of an abortion always linger on screen in Lingui, The Sacred Bonds. Islamic leaders chastise Amina for her past. Doctors discuss the legal ramifications of getting caught. When Amina misses a religious service to help Maria, for instance, her imam (Saleh Sambo) scolds her. She must attend every service, he says, in order for her sins to be forgiven. The brutalities of patriarchal systems are on full display.

Yet those realities are not what motivate Maria and Amina. They are not activists. They are not trying to change a system. Neither has any power. Instead, they are forced to navigate this reality and the various obstacles that come with it like a minefield. “Lingui” is the Chadian word for sacred bonds. It is that bond between Amina and Maria, the willingness of a mother to do anything for her daughter, that drives them and the film.

A similar bond resurfaces after Amina’s estranged sister, Fanta (Briya Gomdigue), visits with her young daughter. The two fell out of contact after their father disowned Amina upon learning of her pregnancy. Fanta’s husband wants to get their daughter circumcised. Powerless in their marriage, Fanta turns to Maria for help. After initial resistance, Maria embraces her sister and agrees to help. When Fanta learns of their pursuit of an abortion, she immediately gives Maria a valuable bracelet to help finance the effort.

Haroun depicts a secret network of women who support one another: nurses and neighbors who work for free and/or in fear. The film’s brevity of dialogue foregrounds the labor of these women, the work they must do just to survive. Thus, their shared experiences and mutual understanding do not always require long exchanges. Often, a glance, a hug, or a short word of thanks suffices.

By contrast, a few menacing men in Lingui, The Sacred Bonds deliver long diatribes and propositions, including Amina’s neighbor, Brahim (Youssouf Djaoro). The dichotomous dialogue reveals the nature of power the women must endure and the spaces they must navigate. The precision of the film’s camerawork also foregrounds such labor in a similar fashion.

Cinematographer Mathieu Giombini deftly captures Maria and Amina on the move. Realist wide shots, for example, follow them through the city’s streets, back alleys, and highways. Often, they stand on one side of the frame and make their way to the other. Such moments leave room for the viewer’s wandering eye to take in the characters’ surroundings. One sees the landscape, street vendors, commuters, i.e. the reality of the everyday. Their endeavor, their bond, and their society all remain in view.

Achouackh Abakar Souleymane delivers a magnificent performance. In the film’s depiction of work, the camera spends time with Amina as she gathers materials and weaves, as she walks the streets selling, and when she aides her daughter. Savvy and tireless, Amina often bests the many obstacles they face. And when she does, a palpable catharsis ensues.

Rihane Khalil Alio similarly envelopes the audience in her role. One sees and feels Maria’s youth and hope transform into fear as she takes an adult’s dilemma into her own hands. Her performance elicits sympathy and respect. And though Maria finds herself in a horrific situation and a number of dark moments, she refuses to relent.

Lingui, The Sacred Bonds depicts a difficult and worthy struggle. Haroun’s decidedly feminist feature never wavers in its critical depiction of injustice. In doing so, the film shows the world as it is and how righteous struggles can and must endure.

Lingui, The Sacred Bonds debuts in theaters in limited release beginning on February 4, 2022, and will be available to stream on MUBI from March 8, 2022.

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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.