Arts and Culture

Film shows ‘Nora’s Will’ strong enough to bridge death, divorce, religion

The desire to reconcile with dead loved ones — to say what was never said and understand what was never explained — is powerful and universal.

Yet 60-something José initially appears immune from that impulse when he finds his ex-wife dead in her apartment at the beginning of the droll and touching Mexican film, “Nora’s Will.” Surprised more than saddened, he stays to supervise funeral arrangements out of a sense of duty until his adult son Rubén can return from a business trip.

Passover is about to start, however, so the burial has to be delayed. Nora must remain in her flat a few days longer, accompanied by José, a davening shomer and dry ice.

The other complication is that Nora intentionally overdosed on pills. The rabbi is willing to overlook her suicide and allow a traditional burial in a Jewish cemetery, presumably as a nod to Rubén’s well-off, well-connected father-in-law. But the contrarian José — who despises religion, rules and hypocrisy — refuses to invent a false cause of death.

This little mess in which José finds himself entangled might seem like strange, bad luck except for the wordless opening sequence of Nora methodically cooking in the kitchen and locking up her journals and photos in her desk. Well, that and the film’s double-edged title. The fact is the devious Nora knew exactly what she was doing, and what the consequences and effects would be.

“Nora’s Will” will be screened Sunday, Jan. 23 as part of the Tucson International Jewish Film Festival.

As one day slips into the next — the movie’s original title, “Cinco Dias Sin Nora” translates as “Five Days Without Nora” — the doorbell signals the arrival of more and more people, including José’s young grandchildren. We come to see that this is part of Nora’s plan, to surround her solitary ex with a circle of friends and family.

Writer-director Mariana Cherillo blends an air of unfolding mystery with bits of gentle absurdity, achieving a rare and delicious tone. At the same time, any wisps of sentimentality are dispelled by José’s acerbic attitude.

José’s agitation is fueled, in part, by his discovery of a photograph of a young Nora with another man. But why should he care? He and Nora were divorced for the past 20 years, though they lived in neighboring buildings with views of each other’s windows.

A few flashbacks illuminate Nora and José’s loving and fraught marriage, adding layers of poignancy to his current isolation. It becomes clear that José does have some unfinished business with Nora: He never acknowledged, to himself or to her, the depth of his love for her.

Nor, for that matter, did he ever fully accept Nora’s true feelings.

“Nora’s Will” is a fundamentally humanist film in which small kindnesses mean a great deal. It is imbued with the unwavering belief that relationships are not just the most important thing in life, but the only thing that gives our lives meaning.

Michael Fox is a film critic in San Francisco.