Thursday, August 28, 2008

My Mexican Shivah

The Hola Mexico Film Festival started each screening with two entertaining spots that worked well together: one was Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World” and the other was the My Mexican Shivah trailer, featuring the tagline: “the worst thing about dying . . . is getting the family together.” If not the most interesting man in the world (they certainly look similar), the late Moishe lived richly and on his own terms, which led to friction with his family, making the cosmic reckoning of Aleph and Bet, the angelic rabbis watching over his shivah, an uncertain proposition. Those seven days are chronicled in director Alejandro Springall’s Shivah, opening tomorrow in New York.

Moishe died as he lived, kicking up his heels to his favorite mariachi band, a fact unremarked on by his uptight family. Though estranged from the late patriarch, they proceed with his shivah, by necessity at his daughter Esther’s house, because Moishe was shacked up with Julia Palafox, the notorious Catholic home-wrecker. Anticipation that the scandalous Palafox might have the audacity to pay her respects exacerbates the already high family tensions. Moishe’s son Ricardo is dealing with girlfriend issues and a mid-life crisis. Esther and her daughter Galia continually spare over her private life in America. For her part Galia does her best to ignite the sexual attraction between herself and her newly Orthodox cousin Nicolás. For seven days it all simmers in a pot of forced family togetherness.

Shivah is defined by a religious ceremony whose participants’ piety varies widely. By and large though, the film is fair in its portrayal of each extreme. True, the Chevreman of the funeral society is more concerned with the form than the spirit of the ceremony. However, the newfound Orthodox faith of Nicolás is never dismissed as a matter of convenience, even when we learn he had reasons for relocating to Israel in a hurry.

While Shivah has the outward appearances of a comedy, it is much more of a family drama. Rather than being terminally quirky, Moishe’s family is surprisingly believable. Not every relative’s subplot pans out, but it is a big family. The cast is quite effective portraying the community of Polaco, Mexico City’s Jewish neighborhood. In particular, David Ostrosky hits a nice balance between world-weariness and desperation as Ricardo, and veteran actress Blanca Guerra exudes warmth and wisdom as the infamous Palafox.

It is all nicely complemented by Jacobo Lieberman’s score for the Klezmatics, whose best known member is probably the somewhat jazz-influenced trumpeter Frank London, who himself scored other films, like the doc Divan, which also addresses notions of Jewish identity. Indeed, the Klezmer and Mariachi music heard in Shivah make for an interesting mix and is part of the film’s charm.

When the shivah concludes, Shivah essentially ends, although hardly any of the family issues are resolved. That’s life, after all. Jorge Goldenberg’s screenplay based on an Ilan Stavans story is often clever and the characterizations are credible. Rather than condemn them for their bourgeoisie ways, Shivah is respectful of the things that bring people together during bereavement—family, friendship, and even religion. While small in scope, Shivah tells Moishe’s story honestly, ultimately giving the dearly departed his due. It opens at the Quad tomorrow.