Mourning: A Comedy

in 33rd Jerusalem Film Festival

by Yishai Kiczales

One Week and a Day (Shavua ve Yom), the big winner of this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival’s Israeli feature film competition, tells a morbid and universal tale with a light touch and a Jewish twist. Asaph Polonsky’s first full length film, which garnered no less than four major awards, including best film, best debut and best script, takes place during two long and eventful days. It follows Eyal (comedian Shai Avivi) and Vicky (local theatre star Evgenia Dodina), a  middle aged couple, who try to get a grip on their lives, a week after the funeral of their 25 year old son who succumbed to cancer.

The film opens on the seventh and last day of the Shiva – the traditional Jewish mourning period – and proceeds to map out the different ways in which both parents attempt to cope with, and make sense of, their loss, and move forward. While Vicky, who works as a school teacher, seems to be focused on getting back to her daily routines as quickly as possible, short fused Eyal opts to take some time off for himself.

After blowing off work, the following day finds him “inheriting” his late son’s stash of medicinal marijuana, and trying to get high. However, this proves to be trickier than expected, as he has never rolled a joint before. In order to solve this predicament, Eyal enlists Zooler (Tomer Kapon), the twenty something year old son of his obnoxious neighbors, and after a few puffs, the two stoners form a unlikely bond and embark on an improvised and unexpected adventure, which eventually leads them to the one place Eyal has been trying to avoid – the cemetery.

Meanwhile, Vicky puts on a brave face, goes about her business, and does her best to act as though nothing dramatic has happened. But it quickly becomes obvious that she too is struggling to stay afloat.

Polonsky, who is clearly a fan of American Indie, injects his tale with the bittersweet mixture made famous by favorites such as Little Miss Sunshine and The Descendants. Anchored by Avivi’s blunt and impatient performance (which, as some critics pointed out, seems to be channeling Larry David’s political incorrectness), and Dodina’s admirable but ultimately failed attempts at detachment and coolness, the film manages to squeeze plenty of laughs out of the dire situation it depicts.

However, thanks to the scripts clever and tender observations, and Polonsky’s steady hands, these comedic moments do not come at the expense of the emotional aspects that are hiding in plain sight. The result is a modest and heartfelt crowd-pleaser revolving around grief and loss, which should have no trouble striking (and gently massaging) raw nerves all over the globe.

Two additional feature films that made a mark in the Israeli competition this year were Meny Yaesh’s Our Father (Avinu), which justly picked up the prize for best actor (won by Moris Cohen), and Eran Kolirin’s Beyond the Mountains and Hills (Me’ever Laharim Vehagvaot), whose Shiri Nadav-Naor won the best actress award.

Our Father, Yaesh’s second film, after his 2012’s fantastic God’s Neighbors, is a sort of a loose, subversive and God fearing remake of the eighties action classic Road House, with a powerful and animalistic lead performance by Moris Cohen, in his first starring role. On the other hand, Beyond the Mountains and Hills – in my opinion, the best film in the competition this year – is a wry, surreal and heart wrenching family drama which articulates several contemporary and burning paradoxes facing Israeli society with surgical precision.

Although both films displayed broader ambitions and offered deeper rewards than One Week and a Day, it seems that their local nuances and insights were lost on the international jury, who according to rumors, were in favor of bestowing all of their prizes on Polonsky’s film. It’s good then, that they were talked out of it. One Week and a Day is definitely a good film. But it’s not that good.

Edited by Yael Shuv