Having not yet garnered enough attention to warrant a Wikipedia page, the funeral films genre will remain a place to be plumbed by those who are lucky enough to notice that the rituals the living construct around death can insight much more laughter than tears. Case in point: Alejandro Springall’s 2007 film, My Mexican Shivah.

Yes, this is a film about Jews in Mexico but even more so, observant Jews who are Mexican. With Larry David in California and Woody Allen in New York, Springall now allows us to speak of Mexico City in this way by playing around with familiar stereotypes along with the delicate touch of a master storyteller making – in a very good way – new stereotypes.

His film is based on the short story, “Morirse está en Hebreo,” by writer and professor Ilán Stavans, depicting what’s Mexican, what’s Jewish and finally, what’s beyond identity through the transformative miracle of what can sometimes be as simple as a pull-my-finger joke: comedy. Thankfully, it should be noted, the humor in this film is much more sophisticated than fart jokes even though the delivery can sometimes be as brisk and pungent…much like this review.

After a dramatic exit, on stage no less, of the man who’s to blame for all the fuss – friend, father and lover, Moishe – a very solemn and strictly regimented religious ceremony ensues. And this is where the chevreman makes his dramatic entrance early on in the film that if it were only appropriate, he would have been wearing a cape; instead, he bears what seems to be an endless supply of yarmulkes or skull caps from a deceptively small black bag. And as we find out, all those involved need no less than a superhero to save them from, well, themselves.

The chevreman – we never learn his actual first name – ensures that the Shivah is carried out appropriately. Meaning “seven” in Hebrew, the Shivah (or when you’re taking part – “sitting Shivah”) happens when a Jewish person dies. The surviving family and friends spend the next seven days sitting Shivah.

At the very least, it’s a way to honor the dead while giving the bereaved some modicum of solace within the structure of ritual including no bathing or joy among other things. Such a custom was borne from the belief that when the soul enters into this world, it occupies a perilous middle place between angels of light and angels of darkness. Upon death, an eerie calculus determines which flank that soul joins. In Springall’s world, those doing the math are two ancient but sweet looking Hasidim equipped with not just a pencil and notebook but gentle humor as they attempt to weigh things that make as much sense as weighing fire when it comes to judging the dead.

“How do you calculate this with The Communists?” asks one of the old Hasidim as they look on to some of the folks sitting Shivah.. “A pious gesture or a sin?” he presents with a twinkle in his eye. That the “Your mom” insults along with threats of violence are lost on the two make for subtle humor as well as thoughtful critique for us in the audience as it begs the question: What is worse, Communism or insulting one’s mother or punching someone?

In a wonderfully shot and edited opening credit sequence, we see what really is solemn – death. Moishe’s body is carefully and gently prepared in accordance with Jewish custom. For those who watched Six Feet Under or an embalming scene on screen, certain expectations flood the mind. Instead, we do not see embalming but something much more gentle. And then it happens.

“If that Palafox woman shows up I’ll slash her face!” whispers a petite, distraught woman while showing the man she’s with a knife in her purse. This contrast with the previous sacred ritual of preparing the body illustrates a dynamic we see over and over in My Mexican Shivah: the juxtaposition of sanitized and sterile rites of religion and the messy, sometimes nasty reality care of the people swept up in its observance. Springall’s ease with humor as well as abilities as a director make for these awkward moments complete hilarity.

The familiar Jewish stereotypes infuse the film as well with exchanges that are also universal including one of the most powerful forces to have ever existed: the power of guilt wielded by a put-out mother.

“Do you love me?”

“Yes, mom.”

(pause) “Why do you hardly ever write to me?”

Happening quietly alongside all of the commotion of the Shivah is another religious ritual undertaken by two Catholic maids in the house who cared just as much for Moishe. While Springall doesn’t spend a lot of time on these instances of religious difference, he effectively and sometimes poignantly shows us that they are there.

Along with well-executed acting and directing, My Mexican Shiva is very well shot with occasional scenes framed so well you want to pause for just a moment before continuing. Indeed, it can be almost a distraction albeit a welcomed one. The editing, overseen by Madeleine Gavivn, also pulls together these frames with such execution that you barely notice that most of the film is shot in one apartment.

One of the more popular eulogy scenes is in The Big Lebowski involving a speech about Vietnam and a coffee can full of ashes. A more obscure scene comes from an episode of Ally McBeal when the prejudices of a short-person hater are playfully celebrated. And then there’s The Big Chill or more recently, Death at a Funeral. The point is, when people die, for a short period of time, even perfectly decent people lose it a little. In My Mexican Shivah, we get to see yet another side of such theatrics, and thankfully so.

Showing as part of The Reel Film Club Series every last Tuesday of the month through the International Latino Cultural Center of Chicago.

On Tuesday, May 31, 2011, 6:00pm at Instituto Cervantes
Address: 31 W. Ohio St., Chicago, IL | Cost: $20 – Use code “Gozamos” for 2 for 1 discount when ordering at 312-431-1330
6 pm : Wine & Hors d’ oevres, 7 pm : Film screening start

My Mexican Shivah (Morirse esta en Hebreo)
2006 | Mexico, USA | 102 min
English Subtitles

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