Nora’s Will (Cinco dias sin Nora) – Review

Menemsha Films
Reviewed for CompuServe by Harvey Karten
Grade:  B
Directed By:  Mariana Chenillo
Written By:  Mariana Chenillo
Cast:  Fernando Luján, Enrique Arreola, Ari Brickman, Juan Carlos Colombo, Marina de Tavira, Max Kerlow, Verónica Langer
Screened at:  Critics’ DVD, NYC, 10/2/10
Opens:  October 15, 2010

Where there’s a will, there’s José (Fernando Luján), an elderly man who finds himself locked in confrontation with his ex-wife, Nora (Silvia Mariscal).  There’s just one thing that should theoretically tilt the scales in this argument: Nora is dead, having committed suicide on her fourteenth try in Mexico City.  What emerges from this casually-paced, intimate, dark comedy, or farce as some would say, is that Nora planned her suicide just before the eve of Passover, a holiday that would require her body to be kept on dry ice for five days rather than be buried within twenty-four hours as is Jewish law.  Nora, who had invited people over for Passover dinner but who expired before she could host it left plastic dishes throughout the refrigerator of her well-appointed home, which she furnished with taste right down to the exquisite marble floor.

We learn from José’s conversations with relatives and rabbis that he and Nora had been divorced for twenty years, though José lived right across the street in a flat that allowed Nora spied on him with binoculars.  José, is an atheist—shocking Rubén, a student rabbi whose job is to read prayers and stay with the dead–by declaring the non-existence of God, then adding fuel by ordering a pizza with ham, bacon and sausage.  When Rabbi Jacowitz (Max Kerlow) forbids the body to be buried on sacred grounds in the Jewish cemetery because Nora had committed suicide thereby “offending God,” according to the Talmud, the stage is set for the confrontation.  When thumbing through her desks, José discovers pictures that imply an affair between Nora and Dr. Nurko (Juan Carlos Colombo), José despairs.

Mariana Chenillo, who wrote and directed “Cinco dias sin Nora,” flashes back three or four decades showing young José (Juan Pablo Medina) trying to convince young Nora (Marina de Tavira) not to commit suicide.  With more entertainment than didacticism, the film will instruct Gentiles in the audience about some customs of the Jewish people.  One aspect that deserves exploration in a documentary or a fiction film in the future revolves around the character of Rubén.  He explains that he has converted to Judaism. The implication is that he may have had ancestors centuries ago in Spain who were forcibly converted to Christianity during the Inquisition and who were compelled to go to Church and declare themselves to be marranos, practicing Judaism in secret.

The Award Winning Nora’s Will
Tuesday, 04 May 2010 11:39 Jonathan Jacobs

Nora’s Will begins with an elderly woman living her life as it always has been; cooking a roast, cleaning, revisiting old photographs and resituating objects around the house. She even manages to spy on her neighbor with binoculars that look like a relic from the early 1900s. The camera angles are planned perfectly for every scene. It is a slice of real life and that helps build the drama. Next, a delivery is made to the same older gentleman’s apartment who, Nora has been spying on. The packages contain frozen meat from Konigsberg (noticeably a Jewish/Kosher food company). Deciding to err on the side of caution, Jose, (Nora’s ex-husband as it turns out) brings the boxes (which weigh a ton) to her apartment. At first there is no answer at the door so he decides to leave. Intuition tells him to return to make sure Nora (his ex-wife) is well. He then finds her lifeless body sleeping for eternity. She looks comfortable and happy to have died in her sleep, wrapped in a blanket, in her own cozy bed.

     Jose immediately walks out on the bedroom ledge and calls his son Ruben to inform him of the tragic news. Nora’s room is beautifully decorated and there is a mirror which I own an exact replica of. It is a traditional piece. When Jose browses around he opens the refrigerator. He finds several sticky notes, each with its own set of instructions. There is also a note stating that Passover dinner must be ready when everyone arrives. Two of the recipes are for the classics, matzoh balls and gefilte fish. The doctor then arrives to confirm her death and to determine the cause. It was a suicide catalyzed by the ingestion of three bottles of pills or a poison; I cannot make out the specific medicine/toxin. Apparently when Jose and the doctor are discussing her death we find out Nora left hot coffee for them to enjoy! There is something brewing here and it is not coffee. The doctor offers his expert opinion that Nora should have been hospitalized 30 years ago on account of suicidal urges. The doorbell rings and again an interruption occurs.

     The man at the door is Rabbi Jacowitz, who in the droll tradition of rabbinical generic condolences does not even know Nora or her name until Jose corrects him. We find out Jose and Nora divorced twenty years ago after thirty years of marriage. The Rabbi has come to discuss a matter of importance according to Jewish law as pertains to the deceased. Unless Jose can find a way to bury Nora and hold a funeral service that very same day he would have to wait until the first two nights of Pesach are over. As it turns out Passover ends on a Saturday which is not a recommended day for burial since it is still Shabbat (the Sabbath). This would cause a delay of four days which is against Jewish law except in special circumstances. Jose is clearly not Jewish and he continually insists his lack of concern for the affair since Nora is his “ex-wife”.

     Rather than allowing his father to bury his mother while he is on vacation, Ruben insists they wait so he can return home to see to his mother’s final affair. The caretakers then arrive to prepare the body and to keep it from decomposing before the four days are over. Again, the Rabbi specifies that under Jewish law someone must remain with the deceased sitting Shiva for the entire time she is being preserved. Jose is clearly disgruntled and ruffled.

     Before being left alone by the doctor, Jose is surrounded by the funereal caretakers and they are all Hassidic. This is emblematic of his individuality as the only non-Jew present. After everyone leaves he notices the binoculars and discovers they are there for one reason only, to spy on his apartment! We are not privy to his private thoughts on the matter because Jose is immediately distracted by the noises in the apartment, namely a grandfather clock that looks a little like his perception of Nora, cuckoo! Or so we think.

     Next there is a very sexy flashback to a much younger Nora and Jose as newlyweds. They are both handsome and Jose had a thick beard even then. He pours his heart out saying that he does not want his wife to kill herself, hence the inspiration for the engraved clock to signify living for all time. It turns out Jose is a quiet but passionate romantic. Unfortunately, this is when he also finds a photo of Nora with another man during their thirty year marriage. This causes him to act inappropriately without fail during the entire ordeal. Later he discovers more photographs proving her psychiatrist Alberto (the doctor who arrived on scene at the beginning) was her longtime lover. Alberto took advantage of Nora when she was in a distraught state of mind.

     When Nora’s neighbor knocks on the door Jose pieces together several key pieces of information and uncovers his ex-wife’s plot to make him celebrate Passover with the family (the table is beautifully decorated and is set for an enormous feast) and to honor her one final time. This perturbs our widower to no end. He breaks down and goes to a Catholic burial home to schedule her burial post haste. This very nearly happens and comes close to derailing Nora’s wishes and her last plans for her family and friends. The tension is mounting in the apartment and Jose is coming unglued.

     While the rabbi’s friend is sitting Shiva with Nora, Jose continues to shock him by ordering a ham, bacon and pepperoni pizza, I am quite sure it is not Kosher. This is both discriminatory in a small sense and comical in another. The intent is to highlight the differences between Nora and her ex-husband and between Jews and Catholics. This plays into the how and why they loved each other so dearly despite inter-religious marriages being anything but customary.

     They then engage in a rather fierce discussion of the meaning of God and religion. I believe in everything Jose iterates, I am rather atheistic and existentialistic and nihilistic but I believe his pejorative remarks are out of place and uncalled for. At once the director allows Jose to speak his mind and rightfully so but also allows his character to seem darkened in spirit. This is a complicated duality that hits at the heart of what Nora’s Will is really about. When I noticed (as will the audience) that Jose can read Hebrew it becomes obvious his mind is riddled with mixed emotions.

     Finally, after Jose’s incessant stonewalling of Nora’s wishes being carried out, Ruben arrives on the scene. It then occurred to me that Nora’s will (lowercase w) is for her family to celebrate life in honor of her deliberate death. While Ruben is with his mother’s body Rabbi Jacowitz arrives. He lectures Jose about Jewish precedents on burying suicide victims all the while eating and drinking coffee (I am Jewish but I will never understand our compulsion to eat even under the most irregular of circumstances). He complains that the conservative synagogue will never allow a suicidal woman to be buried there. Nothing could agitate Jose more than hearing this nonsense. In retaliation, on Passover of all days, he offers the rabbi some pork pizza!

     The million dollar question underlying all of the drama that unfolds is why Jose moved across the street from Nora and lived there since their divorce? I also want to mention that when we meet Ruben’s wife Barbara, she is absolutely stunning. It is like beauty and the beast! Not a handsome beast. Their children are also lovely but it is abundantly clear their marriage is held together by the thin thread of Ruben’s catering to his father in law’s every whim. When the burial scene arrives Rabbi Jacowitz disgustingly sends a surrogate rabbi to perform the ceremony and commands Nora be buried in a part of the cemetery grounds reserved only for criminals. Ruben and Jose stop the service and are mutually outraged.

     I will leave the ending for you to watch when you go to the theater to see Nora’s Will. For my part as a reviewer, I will emphatically tell you this is a film that will make you laugh, smile, cringe and cry, perhaps all at the same time. Jose’s flashbacks of his touching romantic moments with Nora will melt your heart and turn it sideways. This is one of the most true and wonderful love stories and as such it is also one riddled with guilt and betrayal. We are privy to a slice of real life that is unforgettable. Every character acts their part to perfection and causes this film to be nothing short of spectacular. It is an exposition of conflict in an age of religious and social change and one that we can learn unlimited lessons from. It provides no answers but it suggests so many truths. I offer Nora’s Will my highest recommendation for all audiences. I fell in love with Nora’s young character and she will break your heart like she did Jose’s. We are all so lonely at times, and if the love of my life were to die, no matter what the circumstances I could not bear it properly.

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