In Mariana Chenillo’s Nora’s Will (the drab U.S. title of Cinco días sin Nora, Five Days Without Nora), a divorced, 60ish Jewish-Mexican woman quietly takes an overdose of pills, but only after arranging to have many pounds of frozen meat delivered to the upstairs apartment of her ex-husband, José (Fernando Lujan). Discovering the body, the ingredients for a huge Passover feast in her refrigerator, and detailed cooking instructions for the housekeeper, José gets the point: He has been set up yet again by the controlling (often suicidal) spouse he once fled. Damn her! While waiting for his son and son’s family to arrive, the militant atheist must now endure a procession of Orthodox Jews who annoy him so deeply that he calls in a Christian funeral parlor and — in the middle of Pesach — orders a bacon-and-sausage pizza.
Nora’s Will is often on the verge of being funnier and sadder and more discomfiting than it is, yet its unforced tempo often evokes the limbo between death and burial better than movies that take a firmer stand. Lujan’s José is full of sass and bile, but he stays in the apartment of his ex, whose body — covered in a plain white shroud and heaped with dry ice — can’t be buried until after the holiday (and can’t be embalmed in the meantime). The clash of cultures is furtive but insistent. A pale young Orthodox man — a convert from Catholicism — arrives to sit with the corpse (he’s called a shomerim) and tries not to hear José’s slurs on his new faith. Then Nora’s longtime housekeeper, Fabiana, a devout Catholic who can’t bear the thought of her beloved employer being buried without makeup, lures him into the kitchen for a meal — then sneaks in and paints Nora’s face. José’s little granddaughters steal a peek at the body, now looking like a Tijuana whore and wearing a small cross. So Nora must be washed again — behind Fabiana’s back. Amid the comings and goings of relatives and old rabbis and men in beards and black hats, amid the preparation of gefilte fish and matzo balls and kreplach, José and his son (Ari Brickman) must desperately negotiate to get Nora into a Jewish cemetery that won’t consign her to the “unclean” section alongside killers and other violators of Talmudic law. And there’s yet another affront to José’s autonomy: He finds a photo of his Nora when she was young — after her first suicide attempt — with another man, and begins a surreptitious search for confirmation of an affair. Retroactively, he is consumed with jealousy. He knows that Nora went to her death with a smile at the events she was setting in motion, but he also knows he’s no match for her posthumous will.
It’s too bad that Chenillo sentimentalizes the control-freaky side of Nora’s character. The film loses its edge when we begin to perceive her intention to heal, to teach José a lesson about faith. I prefer the sad irony that someone unable to manage her own moods left the world hell-bent on managing others’. (Nora is the postmenopausal version of the control-freaky daughter in ‘night, Mother by the control-freaky playwright Marsha Norman.) But Nora’s Will still leaves a bittersweet taste. In its wry, understated way, it’s a far more searching depiction of life after death than Clint Eastwood’s mawkishly supernatural Hereafter.