Dark comedy brings farce to funeral at Passover

Fernando Lujan in the Mexican dark comedy Nora’s Will.

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Light

The dark comedy “Nora’s Will,” set in Mexico City, follows the aftermath of the death of super-organized, controlling Nora, who leaves exacting instructions for the preparation of the family seder before committing suicide on the eve of Passover. One thing she did not plan on was the chaos possible by her atheist ex-husband Jose, bent on searching her apartment for her will.

“Nora’s Will” is one of the selections for this year’s Jewish Sidebar at the St. Louis International Film Festival. The Mexican film, written and directed by Mariana Chenillo, won awards at the 2010 Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival for Best First Film and for Best Director.

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The film’s original Spanish-language title, which translates loosely as “five days without Nora” really seems a better fit, as all the farce and craziness that takes place during those days in the wake of her death.

Despite being divorced after 30 years of marriage, Jose (Fernando Lujan) and Nora (Silvia Mariscal) were neighbors who both had an odd penchant for spying on each other with binoculars. Jose’s behavior shows hostility towards his ex, whom he called crazy, but it is tempered by mixed feelings. Flashbacks to their early married days reveal their past love. Nora has left instructions that put Jose in charge of her body and personal little notes for everyone else, including the Christian cook who helps her with the elaborate seder every year. Frustrated, Jose searches for an alternative will, to free him from the task.

Why such a careful planner would chose the eve of a holiday for her sui cide seems odd, although the film hints that she expected her body to be found sooner. The timing of her death, along with the fact that it is suicide, deeply complicates plans for a funeral. Due to the approach of Passover and other religious constraints, the rabbi announces that the burial must take place before 3 p.m. that day.

Their son Ruben (Ari Brickman), who was out of town on vacation, finally arrives with his wife and two young daughters. He calls on an influential rabbi to whom he is close for help.

Much of the story focuses on the maddening, puzzling Jose. On the surface, he appears cooperative but secretly he sabotages things. He plays with delight with his two granddaughters but insults the rabbi. He is obsessed with searching Nora’s apartment.

Jose does everything he can to make things more difficult, including paying for the trappings of a Christian funeral in Nora’s apartment, although the old atheist is no more a Christian than they are. An apprentice rabbi Moises (Enrique Arreola) who is sent to stay with the body. The cook Fabiana (Angelina Pelaez), and Aunt Leah (Veronica Langer) all fall prey to Jose’s disruptions.

The humor is bone-dry, sometimes outre, in this dark comedy. The actors, particularly Fernando Lujan as Jose, often offer a deadpan facade to bizarre events. The family’s scramble to arrange burial is sometimes complicated by well-meaning non-Jewish neighbors and friends who pop by to help.

In the end, the film’s farce reveals a warmer side. As the family copes with the challenges of the funeral, Jose gradually rediscovers a lost connection to his past and all of them rediscovers the importance of family.

‘Nora’s Will’

When: The film runs twice at the film festival: 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 14, and 2:15 p.m. Monday, Nov. 15

Where: Plaza Frontenac Cinema

MORE INFO: In Spanish with English subtitles