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Nora's Will

Fernando Lujan in Nora's Will.

Life without Momma

Nora's Will

It’s rare for a feel-good movie to start with a suicide: In fact, Nora’s Will may stand alone in that category for some time to come.

Winner of seven awards at last year’s Ariels, Mexico’s equivalent of the Oscars (including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay), it was originally titled Cinco dias sin NoraFive Days without Nora—which puts first-time filmmaker Mariana Chenillo’s movie in another rare category: foreign films whose English title is an improvement. This dry comedy is not only about the dead woman’s estate but about how she has contrived to control her family even after her death.

Actually, the movie begins shortly after her death from an overdose of pills. Nora lived across the street from José, her husband of 30 years, for the 20 years after their divorce. He is surprised when a shipment of meat she ordered is delivered to his door. Investigating her apartment (he has a key), he finds her body in the bedroom.

José is less than surprised—Nora had always been a depressive and tried to kill herself 14 other times. He calls her rabbi to begin funeral proceedings, and gets the first in what is to be a series of unpleasant surprises. Because of a rare combination of Passover and a weekend, Nora either must be buried by three o’clock that afternoon or wait for five days. And because their son is away on vacation, the first option is impossible.

Born Jewish but a longtime atheist,José is not going to give up that easily. He tries to arrange for a quick secular burial. (He explains to the funeral director that he is inquiring on behalf of his ex-wife; asked, “Is she dead?” José answers “We’re thinking of burying her alive.”)

But Nora is at every point one step ahead of him. José is forced to stay with her corpse, accompanied by a most serious rabbinical student, while he waits for the days to pass and the rest of the family to arrive. At least he doesn’t have to make phone calls: Nora had planned a big Passover dinner, and made sure that it would take place without her.

As José, the veteran actor Fernando Luján is the center of the film. Having suffered Nora’s mercurial passions for so many years, he has learned to maintain his temper, and to take his revenges quietly. (When the dour young rabbi who has been forced on him requests something to eat, he orders a pizza with ham, bacon, and sausage.)

But black as the premise may sound, Nora’s Will is not a dark-hearted movie. We’re frustrated at never being able to get at the nature of Nora’s long struggles, but as the story progresses José gains more sympathy for her. Ironically, it is something that she did not plan—a photograph accidentally discovered—that is key to setting her soul to rest.

Nora’s Will was a hit at the recent Jewish Film Festival, but it is every bit as appropriate for general audiences as any given Woody Allen or Mel Brooks movie—if you caught either one of them working in a mood of open humanism.

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