Mexican Jews in the Land of Death

Mariana Chenillo’s Award-Winning Cinematic Opera Prima

Casket: José (Fernando Luján) lifts up one of his granddaughters, who had been playing in his ex- wife’s empty casket.
Casket: José (Fernando Luján) lifts up one of his granddaughters, who had been playing in his ex- wife’s empty casket.

By Ilan Stavans

Published October 13, 2010, issue of October 22, 2010.
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One might think, since two of the more or less half dozen Jewish-themed Mexican films are about a wake, that the Mexican-Jewish community of about 35,000 is obsessed with death. And indeed, it might well be. After all, Mexico’s fascination with death is ubiquitous, from the Aztec ritual of sacrificing virgins to the gods at the top of pyramids, to the cult of the skull, la calavera, on El Día de los Muertos. The Day of the Dead means big business, taking a population of 100 million to cemeteries across the country and generating enormous profit, especially through tourism. No surprise, then, that the only news coming from Mexico feels as though it’s about la muerte.

The first of the two recent movies dealing with a wake, “My Mexican Shivah” (2007), was directed by Alejandro Springall and based on one of my stories, “Morirse está en Hebreo.” It’s a comedy in which a dysfunctional Jewish family mourns the passing of its patriarch, whom everybody remembers differently. The six-day shivah comes complete with incest, a marijuana-smoking aunt and Mariachis. In contrast, the second movie, “Cinco Horas Sin Nora” (literally translating as “Five Hours Without Nora”), known in the United States as “Nora’s Will,” is a heavy-handed drama.

Released in 2009, “Nora’s Will” was a directorial debut that nevertheless won a remarkable seven Ariels, Mexico’s equivalent of the Oscar. Directed by 33-year-old Mariana Chenillo, it’s an autobiographical meditation on the suicide of a grandmother, and like “My Mexican Shivah,” the afterlife is barely worth an afterthought; only the here and now matters. Jointly they suggest that while death might be a person’s end, for the relatives it is just an awakening. In his 1940 novel about Mexico, “The Power and the Glory,” Graham Greene puts it well: “Why, after all, should we expect God to punish the innocent with more life?”

Even if not entirely satisfactory — the characters feel overdrawn, the overall effect dispassionate — one ends up admiring Chenillo’s opera prima, her first feature-length work. She developed the screenplay herself and shot it over a couple of months in the same neighborhood, Polanco, where Springall shot his movie. Springall’s effort must have been in Chenillo’s mind, because the apartments in both movies are almost replicas of each other, and the casts of the films share an actor, Max Kerlow, who in both instances plays a religious Jew. “Nora’s Will” includes veteran TV actor Fernando Luján as José, Nora’s curmudgeon husband. José and Nora (Silvia Mariscal) divorced years ago, yet they live near each other. In fact, they enjoy spying on each other with binoculars through their respective windows.

Nora plans her final suicide — she has attempted to kill herself several times before — shortly before Passover, leaving the entire Seder meal ready in the fridge with instructions on how to serve it. Her beyond-the-grave objective soon becomes clear: She will bring back her entire family, including her only son, Rubén (Ari Brickman), and his wife and young daughters; Rubén’s sister, Leah (Verónica Langer), and her own one-time lover, Dr. Nurko (Juan Carlos Colombo). The story is told from José’s viewpoint: His ambivalence toward Nora unravels as he discovers her amorous past. Did he leave her, as he always believed, or was it the other way around?

The cinematography by Alberto Anaya Adalid is gorgeous, but it can’t rescue the endeavor as a whole. The acting is surprisingly flat, especially from Luján, who looks bored rather than conflicted as a divorcé still attached to his ex-wife. And the rest of the cast appears directionless. Nora’s suicide is never fully explained. José’s ambivalence toward faith, typical of a stratum of Mexican Jewry, is overemphasized, ultimately making him an unnerving, unsympathetic character. The film ends with the enjoyment of the Passover meal, which is a bit like Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”: a gallery of types. At one point, a prominent rabbi offers himself to organize Nora’s shivah. José pre-empts his efforts by seeking the services of a Christian funeral home. Chenillo’s central concern, it appears, is the exploration of the crossroads where the Jewish and Catholic faiths merge. It isn’t always clear, however, whether — and for what reason — the audience wants her to laugh, cry or do both.

But the Ariels didn’t arrive without reason. One of the most inspired scenes in “Nora’s Will” takes place when Nora’s granddaughters playfully climb into a casket to hide. The story focuses on these girls only in passing, which is a mistake, given their appeal and the impact that their grandmother’s suicide is likely to have on them. In contrast, the series of flashbacks in which José and Nora (the youngish Juan Pablo Medina and Marina de Tavira) are seen in the earlier years of marriage are schmaltzy, not to say amateurish. It’s difficult to imagine such an inconsistent film being rewarded by prizes across the board in a country of comparable size.

In any case, the repetition of the motif of the wake in these two Mexican-Jewish films might be more than sheer coincidence. Death south of the border has always been a way of life, and perhaps more so since the fall of the single-party rule and the arrival of democracy in the year 2000, when the centralizing figure of El Presidente became threateningly weak. That death in Mexico can wait respectfully until one reaches an advanced age, surrounded by family — even if all of them are meshuga — is a stroke of luck.

“Nora’s Will” opened on October 8, in New York and Los Angeles.

Ilan Stavans, Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, is a contributing editor to the Forward. He co-authored “With All Thine Heart: Love and the Bible” (Rutgers University Press).

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