Bill and Tonya are a long-married couple who have built a home and raised a family together. As a couple, they’ve also developed their own secret language, called Martinese, as a way to talk to one another when their children were young.
But now their children are grown and have left the family home for lives of their own. And now Bill and Tonya find themselves as empty nesters, speaking Martinese almost exclusively — and in danger of withdrawing from the world as they get older.
Written and directed by Oscar-winning directing duo Sam Davis and Rayka Zehtabchi, this cinematic portrait of a couple captures a rapport and love that is both ordinary and remarkable, examining how two people build a life together, becoming a world in and of themselves — a world that shifts quietly but seismically when the children leave the nest.
The observational documentary format offers a perfect vehicle to explore a set of fascinating characters, foregrounding their voices, lives, concerns and preoccupations. The handheld camerawork, lovely natural lighting and fluid editing capture the sounds and textures of an ordinary older couple in normal life, sitting in their home, folding laundry and working in the yard.
It captures the remarkable domestic harmony that exists between Bill and Tonya, who have a clear affection for one another and a weathered, time-worn and homey way about them. The film especially captures how they talk and think in a way that suggests they’ve become one harmony, even when they’re not interacting together.
Their shared secret language has as much to do with this bond as raising a family and building a home together, and Martinese functions much like a shared project or collaboration between them. The language itself has a gently eccentric, endearing charm to it, reflecting its creators. But as the storytelling unfolds, an undertow of melancholy in it comes to the fore, casting a quiet shadow, and viewers may be left wondering if Martinese will fill the void of an empty nest — or if it will further isolate Bill and Tonya as they age, especially in a world where the elderly are already in danger of social isolation.
“Shnoof” has a trick up its sleeve at its end, one that reveals its artfulness but also explains the unusual thematic unity and resonance. But in the end, the structure that is revealed serves the story of this couple perfectly. Entering the later stages of the partnership, after the childrearing and life-building are mostly done, Bill and Tonya have evolved into a harmony that is devoid of the conflict and tension that fuels most drama, so the portrait format captures them in their most authentic essence.
What’s ultimately revealed is just how this shared language is, in fact, perhaps the ultimate collaboration between the couple. Martinese is their life’s work together: not just the conduit through which they communicate thoughts and ideas with, but a storehouse in which they’ve embedded their shared life and memories. Every language has certain concepts particularly to culture and history — think the Portuguese “saudade,” for example. Martinese possesses many concepts unique to the couple, which are deeply specific to the Martins — and which echo with a deeper resonance for everyone, especially in the twilight of an emptier home, waiting to be filled with the memories of the next phase of life.