With a title that sounds standard but turns out to be specific, “One Week and a Day” keeps an impeccable balance between absurdity and sadness, comedy and heartbreak. Increasingly outrageous but always plausible, it applies its pitiless, pitch black sense of humor to a very particular situation.
That would be the Jewish ritual of shiva, the tradition of mourning the death of a family member by staying at home for a week to receive relatives and friends. The debut feature for writer-director Asaph Polonsky, the film focuses on the end of the shiva week for one family and its first day back in the world.
“One Week and a Day” takes place in Israel, but this is a country we haven’t seen much before, where tattooed stoners deliver takeout sushi and political questions do not arise. Your grandfather’s Israeli film this is not.
Yet even as the film acknowledges the culture of freewheeling contrarians, which one character candidly describes as “a nation of assholes,” “One Week” depicts an Israeli society where people have no trouble looking out for themselves.
Eyal (top Israeli comic actor Shai Avivi), for example, is introduced taking savage satisfaction in pummeling his ping-pong opponent before sneering to all and sundry “who wants to get whipped?” The only problem is that everyone within the sound of his voice, crushed opponent included, is about 8 years old.
Eyal would doubtless be a difficult man no matter what the situation, but he’s on a real tear now. His 25-year-old son Ronnie died of cancer a week ago, and behaving in any kind of decorous manner is the last thing on his mind.
Today is the last day of shiva for Ronnie, and while efficient women, including Eyal’s wife and Ronnie’s mother, Vicky (Evegenia Dodina), are packing up the rented chairs and putting away the food, Eyal roams the house, looking for trouble.
He finds it when a couple clumsily arrives at the door after shiva is officially over, which makes Eyal so angry he initially hides from them in the garden. When one of the newcomers tells him, “I hope you won’t know any more grief,” he snaps back, “We will.”
Eyal surprises even Vicky by deciding to skip the traditional graveside visit, claiming he is protecting the house from canny burglars who read obituary notices.
He goes instead to the hospice where Ronnie died, looking for his son’s blanket and finds, in a sequence both poignant and hilarious, his son’s stash of highly potent medical marijuana instead. Eyal decides to try to get high for the first time, but even rolling a joint proves to be too much.
The next day, the supposed return to normalcy is anything but. Vicky, having trouble adjusting as well, tries to return to her elementary school class, with unexpected results. She leaves Eyal with just one task: to secure the plot next to Ronnie for their own burial.
Still obsessed with that unsmoked marijuana, Eyal contacts Zooler (a very funny Tomer Kapon), one of his son’s friends and a space cadet of the first order. A sushi deliverer by day, he dreams of winning a world championship in air guitar. And he’s such a stoner he’s all but oblivious to Eyal’s continued harshness.
All of this is undeniably and intentionally funny, not just because of the skill of the actors and the arrival of amusing peripheral characters like a larcenous cabbie, but also because of how carefully Polonsky has constructed a script that expertly sets up the jokes.
What makes this production special, however, is that it never loses sight of the considerable pain behind Eyal’s and Vicky’s actions. “One Week and a Day” explores the conundrum of loss, the ways in which a death in the family makes one incapable of going on even though going on is what’s most essential.
How Polonsky comes to square that particular circle is just one more successful element in this very fine film.
“One Week and a Day.” No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. Playing: Laemmle’s Royal, West Los Angeles, Town Center 5, Encino.