‘Nora’s Will’ a lovely tone-poem on love and absolution
Absolution can sometimes be found in the most unusual circumstances. Just ask the characters in Nora’s Will, an engrossing, thoroughly engaging little tone poem from Mexican writer-director Mariana Chenillo. Intricate, yet simple in design, and laced with deliciously dry humor, this low-key meditation on love, loss, and family ties also ponders the power of absolution, especially among those who may not realize how badly they need it.
Chenillo’s original Spanish title, 5 Dias Sin Nora (5 Days Without Nora) perhaps speaks more to the heart of a film whose central (or at least most dominant) character is dead when the story begins.
But the English-language title slyly shifts to the perspective of the film’s protagonist José (Fernando Luján), a courtly, if somewhat curmudgeonly gent of a certain age who finds himself reluctantly in charge after his ex-wife, Nora, from whom he’s been divorced for 20 years, commits suicide. It was not a crime of passion. And as José discovers just how meticulously Nora has stage-managed events, the more determined he becomes to resist what he sees as her manipulations from beyond the grave.
Nora’s suicide attempts over the years finally drove José out of their 30-year marriage, although they continued to live just across the way from each other in adjoining apartment buildings. An errant delivery of frozen meat ensures that José will find the body. (Nora has even left a pot of coffee steeping in the kitchen for him.) No sooner does he call their son, who’s out of the country on holiday, than the rabbi arrives from the local synagogue to which Nora and José belong (although José no longer believes in religion or God). With Passover looming (Nora has thoughtfully left the makings of the entire feast in scrupulously marked Tupperware bins in her fridge), the rabbi informs José that unless they inter her immediately, according to Jewish law, they’ll have to wait five days before they can bury her.
With his son and his family still en route, José grudgingly agrees to wait, and keep vigil over Nora, accompanied by a timid young apprentice (Enrique Arreola) sent by the rabbi to pray over the corpse. José indulges in a few acts of rebellion: he switches the post-it notes on those Tupperware bins, and orders a “wake-to-go” from a nearby Christian funeral home that sends over ice and an AC unit for the body, along with flowers, a large cross, and a shiny silk-lined coffin worthy of Dracula. When the disapproving rabbi threatens to stay for a meal, José offers him a take-out ham, bacon and sausage pizza.
But as the cast expands (a Catholic housekeeper/nanny and a distant cousin who arrive to cook the Passover meal; son Ruben (Ari Brickman), his wife (Cecilia Suárez) and their two rambunctious little girls), José finds himself on a private journey to rediscover the woman he loved—if never quite understood—for so long.
This love story between José and Nora is the surprise at the center of this shrewdly constructed story. Chenillo resorts to the occasional brief flashback, but it’s mostly told in the older José’s evolving attitude toward his ex, from resentment to reawakened tenderness. When the Jewish cemetery refuses to bury a person who commited suicide in hallowed ground and prepares a shabby grave at the outskirts of the property, José rallies with an act of gallantry to ensure that Nora’s remains and her memory will be respected.
While the plot percolates along on the edge of black comedy, the film never veers into satire, nor attempts to advocate for any one religion (or lack of religion) over another. Chenillo is more interested in the vagaries of human nature, as her characters cope with an increasingly trying, yet oddly cathartic situation. It’s significant that no one ever tries to “explain” whatever dark forces in Nora drove her to repeated suicide attempts. It becomes accepted as part of who she was, even as her loved ones come to grips with the parting gift of love and absolution she leaves behind. One false emotional step in this tricky storyline might have scuttled the whole thing, but Chenillo brings off this tender mood piece with skill and delicacy.
(5 DIAS SIN NORA)
Watch film trailer >>> ★★★ (out of four)
With Fernando Luján, Ari Brickman, and Cecilia Suárez. Written and directed by Mariana Chenillo. A Menemsha Films release. Not rated. 92 minutes. In Spanish with English subtitles.