It's always a pleasant surprise to discover a film you know nothing about and find that it transports you in ways you never expected.
So it is with Nora's Will, a Mexican import that opened in limited release last Friday (10/15/10) before going wider. Written and directed by Mariana Chenillo, it is a film that never telegraphs its surprises -- and offers both low-key and broader comedy, even as it finds its way to the heart.
At the center of the film is Jose (Fernando Lujan), older and seemingly retired, whose apartment doorbell rings one day. It's a delivery man with a huge order of frozen meat; it's meant for his neighbor, Nora, across the street but she's not home -- and she's given the orders to have it sent over to Jose to keep.
Jose, however, has no room in his freezer. So he carries the meat back over to Nora's apartment - and then produces a key to let himself in. He finds space in her freezer for the meat and starts to leave - but notices that the coffee pot is on and so are several lights. He calls Nora's name but there's no answer. Still, he can't quite leave -- and when he goes looking for her, he discovers her dead body in her bed.
His first phone call peels away a couple of layers. In fact, Nora is his ex-wife -- and she has swallowed several bottles of sleeping pills. It is, Jose notes, only the latest in a lifelong series of suicide attempts -- but her first successful one.
Suddenly Jose is overwhelmed by the demands of disposing of her remains because his son, Ruben, is traveling out of the country. Jose and his family are Jewish, though he has long since stopped being observant. But when the rabbi, a friend of Jose's son Ruben, arrives, he points out that, according to Jewish tradition, suicides are not allowed to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. However, if Jose's son will talk to his influential father-in-law about making a large contribution to the synagogue's building fund, the cause of death can be finessed and the burial can take place.
Except that it's the first night of Passover -- and so, while Jewish tradition demands burial within 24 hours of death, the holiday supersedes that tradition. Nora's burial will have to wait until after the first two nights of Passover =- and then after the Sabbath, which comes the next day and also takes precedence.
All of this is casually set up in the first 10 minutes or so of the film. So is Jose's obvious distaste for Jewish ritual -- or at least for the organized-religion portion of it. Forced to stay with Nora's body (for which the rabbi sends a crew bearing a shroud and dry ice to keep the body until burial is possible), Jose begins to see Nora's hand in everything that is happening.
For him, it becomes a battle of wills -- the same struggle that cost him his marriage. In death, Nora has finally gained control over Jose, returning him to her home and forcing herself back into his thoughts, if belatedly. In part, it's respect for the dead; in part, it's his curiosity after finding a misplaced photograph of the young Nora -- taken during their marriage -- with another man.
But even as he secretively searches her apartment for something that will reveal the identity of her former lover, he also gains unexpected insight into his ex-wife. In flashback, we see that her suicide efforts were a result of mental illness over which she had no control. The younger Jose, however, took her attempts personally, seeing them as acts of selfishness that would rob him of his wife and their young son of his mother long before either was ready to lose her.
As downbeat as this all sounds, it's actually quite funny, with a dry, light touch to Jose's tiny rebellions against both Nora's will (referring to her manipulations, as opposed to her last will and testament) and everyone who arrives to serve it. Lujan, with his distinguished beard and deadpan manner, is an unlikely mischief-maker, which is what gives each of his actions a particular zing.
Indeed, Chenillo achieves that difficult trick of creating subversive humor, while slowly revealing Jose's long-buried feelings. What starts as a comedy of one man's rebellion against what is expected of him turns into a moving story in which his understanding of his own life blossoms.
That's a rare balancing act, one that Nora's Will achieves with both grace and wit.