In the brief, picturesque prologue of Nora’s Will, the decrepit title character sets a lavish dinner table, brews a full pot of coffee, locks away some aging vacation photos in a roll top desk, and then offs herself with several vials of prescription drugs. This is all depicted, atop main titles, via aggressively object-doting close-ups (it’s a veritable buffet of plot devices with neatly implied placards), but the scene’s punch line irresistibly floats the intention of the film’s U.S. distribution title with philosophical sarcasm. Instead of delineating a last wish or testament, the “will” seems, rather, an inversion of Schopenhauer’s cynically self-preservatory humanism—a celebratory embrace of annihilation as the necessary precursor to creation.
This complicated, if somewhat Judeo-Christianly ho-hum, binary relationship blossoms into inter-generational, inter-faith conflict as Nora’s extended Jewish-Mexican family gathers in her small apartment to make plans amid the funereal stalemate of Passover. They gradually discover that the recently departed left a reconciliatory trail of crumbs behind her, starting with the gregariously warmed pot of joe and continuing with a slew of handwritten notes slyly stashed about the condo. Even the fancy refrigeration system preserving Nora’s corpse throughout the long, holy weekend seems to prod the group towards intimacy while accentuating the mana of abandoned bottles and Tupperware, as well as the plot turn-telegraphing letters and notebooks hidden underneath. And without resorting to icy, blue-lipped imagery, cinematographer Alberto Anaya Adalid renders the still-life patience of a body, and a family, ensnared in suspended animation.
The death’s tendentiousness eventually becomes an excuse to plunge into perfunctory existential dialogue while sitting shiva, with local (and internal) friction between Catholicism and Judaism cuing us in to internecine grudges and offering flourishes of comic insensitivity (as well as curious cultural factoids: Mexico City is apparently home to tens of thousands of Jews whose south-of-the-border lineage stretches back to the days of the Spanish Inquisition). To solidify this unique dialectic, first time writer-director Mariana Chenillo assembles a parabolic potpourri of personalities jaundicely dominated by Nora’s sour puss atheist of an ex-husband José (Fernando Luján). He inadvertently uncovers possible evidence of a 30-year-old infidelity while sicking a cheap and speedy, if unceremonious, Catholic funeral home on the body; this ecclesiastical faux pas, in turn, tests the good will of naïve rabbi-in-training Moisés (Enrique Arreola), who must perform the family-requested last rites beside a garish crucifix, a cross-shaped coffin, and other less-than-Kosher emblems. By the arrival of the rosary-toting, matzoh soup-fixing housekeeper Fabiana (Angelina Peláez), along with José and Nora’s only offspring, the pragmatically devout Rubén (Ari Brickman), the cast already implies the diverse pageantry of an uncouth ethnic joke.
The delicately humorous script, however, never quite erupts into the screwball Seder that the dry ice-cocooned cadaver in the corner deserves. Nora’s Will is likely to be categorized as a black comedy, but it’s more accurately something of a bright tragedy, with the bulk of the action resting in stage-like exchanges of words and gestures within the walls of the deceased’s apartment. The lack of histrionics exercised over the corpse and the third act hunt for sympathetic interment suggest the joie de morte weightlessness of The Trouble with Harry, but José‘s grumpily anti-God sentiments (especially when juxtaposed with hirsutely Hasidic, pre-apostasy flashbacks) flatly cry out to be corrected with unconditional agape. This allows Chenillo to cultivate likeable moments of religious squeamishness; José anti-heroically proclaims the inexistence of a higher power to a peaked Moisés between bites of sausage pizza. But it excuses skimpy storytelling, which eventually makes the film’s central mystery an irritatingly unanswered question rather than a poignantly contemplative koan (we learn that Nora attempted suicide 14 times before succeeding, but receive no indicators of the nature of her inner turmoil).
Drawing on the old, wise, non-judgmental rabbi trope, the film attempts to tarp this hole at the last minute; its gentle tone, however, disables the A Serious Man-style shrug of skepticism and retroactively bathes the auto-slaughter in contrivance. Nora’s Will commendably dares to view suicide as an agent of familial cohesion, but it simplifies its most fecund conflicts to the point of characterizing fodder.