Holiday movies: Nora’s Will flies you far away

This doesn’t sound like a comedy:
A depressed divorcee commits suicide after elaborately planning the reunion of her sadly fragmented family in the five days following her death. But, the newly released Nora’s Will (also known as Five Days without Nora) has been showered with rave reviews as an entertaining comedy.

How can this be a comedy? Think Woody Allen, except that Nora’s Will was created by hot young Mexican director Mariana Chenillo, who now is in her mid 30s, but wrote and produced this mature look at a dysfunctional family while she still was in her 20s. The Mexican National Fund for the Arts and Culture helped to support her work. Clearly, she is a fan of Woody Allen’s family comedies like Hannah and Her Sisters. Chenillo’s comedy bears the Allen influence right down to the opening and closing titles set in simple white type against a black screen.

Why should you see this strangely cross-cultural comedy? Well, first, this actually is more cross-cultural than you might expect. Nora’s family is Jewish—or, to be more precise, various relatives and associates of the family once were Jewish, or are Jewish converts, or are trying hard to be friends of Jewish culture. Nora’s ex-husband, in fact, now is so brashly anti-religious that he delights in provoking the family’s Jewish friends. (Think Larry David in Woody Allen’s 2009 comedy Whatever Works.) On top of that, the film’s setting is the eve of Passover with the Passover Seder playing a key role in Nora’s elaborate reunion plans. So, American viewers are flying away to Mexico for a Spanish-language comedy (with English subtitles). We are jumping into the heart of a dysfunctional Jewish family in the midst of wildly conflicting expectations about orthodox Passover and funeral customs. Your head will spin just a bit.

Will you laugh?
You certainly will smile. If nothing else, you’ll grin in the final scenes, including the angry old ex-husband on a balcony in the closing moments. While this clearly is a farce, there are dozens of delightfully honest human moments, including the grandchildren who are stuck in this claustrophobic house day after day and simply can’t resist playing near the empty casket awaiting Grandma. No, don’t worry, there’s no tragedy with the casket, but children do wind up acting out favorite movie scenes amid the gloomy setting. You can’t help but smile.

Why haven’t you heard of this film before today? Perhaps you’re not watching recent movie reviews. The LA Times’ esteemed critic Kenneth Turan writes in part: 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.
Popular author and critic Leonard Maltin raves, too: Indie and foreign films have a tougher time in today’s marketplace, which is why I want to call your attention to an import that’s truly worth seeing—even though you may not have heard about it. … Quiet, original, irreverent, ironic: These are some of the adjectives that describe Mariana Chenillo’s bittersweet comedy about a Jewish family dealing with the suicide of its matriarch on the eve of Passover.

Why see it now? That’s easy. This week, Americans are discovering the first wave of “holiday movies” on the shelves at Target and Wal-Mart, which mostly means home-for-Thanksgiving and snowflake-dusted Christmas movies. This year, you’ll even see a brand-new DVD edition of the granddaddy of contemporary holiday-reunion dramas: Ed Asnwer’s 1976 made-for-TV movie The Gatheringin which a dying, troublesome family patriarch tries to reunite his conflicted family at the holidays. Since Asner’s masterful drama, we’ve seen dozens of Hollywood and made-for-TV knock offs replay this same theme—generally with cloyingly sweet plot twists designed to wring a few tears before the closing credits. Compared with that lot, Nora’s Will is a bracingly refreshing cup of holiday cheer.

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Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

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