The loss of one’s child — the most devastating event in this world — has rarely been depicted as strangely as in the Israeli film One Week and a Day. A terrible pall hangs over the movie, but the bereaved father, Eyal Spivak (Shai Avivi), has the emotional (im)maturity of Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm. And given that his countrymen are not, as a rule, models of forbearance, his culture exacerbates his assholery. The upshot is a squirm comedy set astride a grave — and somehow more moving for its protagonist’s inability to grieve the way sane people are supposed to.
The “one week” refers to the time that Spivak and his wife, Vicky (Jenya Dodina), sit shiva, the traditional period of Jewish mourning, while the “day” is when the Spivaks have to carry on, for better and worse. The film opens in the shiva’s last hour, during which Spivak enthusiastically beats the tar out of a poor little kid in Ping-Pong and then hides in the bushes to avoid his tardy next-door neighbors, the Zoolers, whom he despises for their absence during his late son’s illness. He and Vicky greet the couple frostily, accept their cucumber salad (Spivak to the Zoolers: “I don’t eat cucumbers”), and head for a graveside service. Or Vicky does. When Spivak leaps out of the car after declaring his intention to stay home to foil obituary-savvy robbers, Vicky stares ahead in stunned disbelief. So does the audience.
I know people who felt guilty every time they laughed, confused by their own responses, which is just how writer-director Asaph Polonsky must have wanted it. Suffering doesn’t always ennoble, and death has no allegiance to genre — which is why the rituals surrounding it are vital, to channel chaotic emotions. The comedy in One Week and a Day comes from confusion, ineptitude, and alienation. It comes from people’s defenses being way, way down. It doesn’t cheapen the tragedy. It grounds it, sometimes in the mud. Spivak and Zooler are names of clowns, especially when spat out in disgust, as when the final k in Spivak is hit contemptuously hard and the oo of Zooler is drawn out in a sneer: “Zoooooler,” as in, “Newwwwman.” But clowns also cry.
Consider the scene in which Spivak sneaks into his son’s old hospice room in search of a blanket he left behind and disturbs its current occupant, a bald young man who’s plainly on his way out but manages to point feebly at a drawer — where Spivak finds his son’s unused bag of medical marijuana and tries to slip it into his pants.
Polonsky lingers on the pitiful attempts of Spivak (a drug neophyte) to roll a joint, which include wrapping the paper around a gummy worm. And when Spivak resorts to phoning his hated neighbors’ stoner son (Tomer Kapon), a 20-something sushi-restaurant delivery boy, the unlikely pair find common ground fast, a bit like Walter and Jesse in Breaking Bad. One Week and a Day teeters on hilarity with one mitigating factor: As Spivak spends more and more time with the amiable slacker, you begin to see that it’s his foggy attempt to remain a father. His son, Ronnie, was 25.
The point, of course, is that Spivak and Vicky can’t return so smoothly to their lives. Both are in a daze, their motions mechanical, their minds on neither the past nor the future but some twilit intermingling of both. Avivi and Dodina are a beautifully matched mismatch. Dodina does wonders with deadpan, her Vicky shaking her head at her husband’s latest bit of childishness, too impatient to calm him down, too weary to scold him. And she has at least a bit of his pushiness, brazening her way into her old classroom (she’s an elementary-school teacher) while the substitute stands flustered.
One Week and a Day has a late hospice sequence that’s borderline offensive, a Patch Adams–like mix of high jinks and uplift. Okay, scratch that, it doesn’t approach the ickiness of that Robin Williams vehicle. But it edges in that direction. The bad taste is swiftly dispelled by the brilliant emotional climax. Spivak forgot to reserve the two grave sites beside his son’s and, when he finds they’ve been taken, flings away the temporary marker on one of them in a rage. Then he wanders into the memorial service for that plot’s future inhabitant, whose older brother speaks with devastating eloquence about his sister’s graceful stoicism as her treatment options dwindled. Like many of us, Spivak finds a pathway to his own grief by listening to someone else’s story. As the funeral procession approaches the woman’s grave, Spivak frantically zigzags among the gravestones to find the marker he tossed away, a newly enlightened fool trying vainly to forestall an injury to someone else and affirm his connection to the world.
*This article appears in the April 17, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.