Battles of wills between divorced couples are nothing new, but "Nora's Will" adds a delicious twist. The struggle in this poignant and tremendously appealing film features a man who fights a stubborn rear-guard action against his dead ex-wife's final wishes and in the process learns more than he anticipates about his family and himself.
Under its original title, "Cinco Dias Sin Nora" (Five Days Without Nora), this film was a great success in Mexico, winning seven Ariels, the Mexican Oscar, including best film, original screenplay and a pair of acting awards.
Though this is her first feature, writer-director Mariana Chenillo displays great sureness of touch behind the camera. She creates fully imagined eccentric characters, places them in a wryly comic and specific world and takes deft pokes at the occasional rigidity of organized religion in the process.
That religion is Judaism, and the Nora of the title is enough of a believer to be shown in the film's opening minutes carefully setting the table for what looks to be a formal and elaborate Passover Seder. Without ever seeing her face or hearing her speak, we know before the credits are over that Nora is both strong-willed and meticulous.
How meticulous, her ex-husband Jose (Ariel winner Fernando Luján, in a pitch-perfect performance) is about to rediscover. Divorced from Nora for decades but still living in an apartment across the street, Jose is lured into Nora's place by an elaborate stratagem only to find that his ex-wife has taken an overdose of sleeping pills and, in her 15th attempt in 30 years, finally succeeded in killing herself.
Nora has not only carefully arranged for her death — she left her cat with a neighbor by pretending to be on vacation — she also has plans for the next few days. By committing suicide on the eve of Passover, she has ensured that she can't be buried in a Jewish cemetery for four days, especially because her son Ruben (Ari Brickman) and daughter-in-law Barbara (Cecilia Suárez) are out of town and want time to return.
More than that, Nora has filled her refrigerator with food ready to be cooked for that Seder, labeling every container with Post-its and leaving an entire book of instructions for her faithful maid, Fabiana (the wonderful Angelina Peláez, also an Ariel winner), to execute. Clearly Nora, with the aid of strategically placed dry ice, wants to be in the apartment while her family celebrates a last holiday meal together.
This may sound sentimental, albeit a bit unusual, but it considerably aggravates ex-husband Jose. For one thing, he dislikes being manipulated from beyond the grave, and for another, though born Jewish, Jose has become a fierce atheist who has no patience for his former religion and its rules and constraints.
Jose is especially irked at his ex-wife's crotchety, old-school spiritual advisor, the venerable Rabbi Jackowitz (Max Kerlow). Expecting a traditional grieving former husband, this worthy man of faith is dumbfounded by someone who tries to give Nora a quick Catholic burial (hence the huge floral cross that finds its way into the apartment) and whose idea of an appropriate snack for the rabbi is a sausage and ham pizza.
All of this plus additional characters and further plot complications that are best discovered on screen, are executed with a rare delicacy and a genuine affection for the foibles of fallible human beings trying to make the best of the complications life throws at them..
Perhaps most impressive of all is filmmaker Chenillo's ability to make universal a very particular experience, to make something so firmly grounded in Mexico's Jewish community appealing across the board. That's a talent well worth appreciating today and watching out for in the future.