Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Funeral That Wouldn't Die!

Shiva(Seven Days) (2008)

Directed by Ronit And Shlomi Elkabetz

I had the good fortune of seeing this at the Israel film festival a few weeks ago. Ronit Elkabezt (the lovely shop owner of "The Bands Visit") and her brother Shlomi direct this minimalist family drama about Shiva (not the supreme Hindu God), the Jewish tradition where the entire family of the deceased remains in their home for 7 days of prayer and fasting, to help their soul get to heaven.The mourning is reserved for the seven first-degree relatives: father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, and spouse. (Grandparents and grandchildren are not included). The family in question is large with something like 7 brothers and 2 sisters, and all of their children, not to mention the occasional cousin, friend, well wisher and social climber making a cameo. The house is not small, but was clearly not designed for over a dozen people to sleep head to foot in the same living room, as they must for the sake of tradition. The family is Moroccan, (who are minority in Israel, actually in the q and a, I found out this is the first film about Moroccan Jews, ever.), and were lower class until, one of the brothers, Hiam, built a factory where he was able to employ his other brothers and buy houses for them. Now the business is failing (though the film is set in 1991, our current economic crisis here too, seems to rears its head, albeit in a more domestic setting), and the brothers are divided as to whether they should sell their homes to save the company or let it fail("better some of us come out ahead, to help the others later..").
Meanwhile Ronit Elkabetz who stars in this as well, plays Vivianne, who has been separated from her husband nearly 2 years, but who has yet to see other men, to spare her current husband from shame, til he will agree to a divorce. "I would kill myself before I divorce you." he says (another interesting tid-bit the actor playing her husband was a Muslim who didn't speak any Hebrew, and was taught just enough to speak his lines). The husband comes around each day, often bumping into a would be suitor, who also only shows up to try his luck his Viviane, who is in turn being tailed, by a brother's wife's friend who wants to win the attentions of the suitor...
That's not scratching the surface of the inter-family dynamics and drama which flare up often without exposition to what the argument is about. We gain what we know from watching and listening to the characters, as if we were attending the funeral our selves. Think Rachel Getting Married as a still life and your on the right track. There is almost no camera movement, as we go from scene to scene of close ups, and the close quarters begin to wear on every one's nerves. Like any family there are many moments of levity and humor, ranging from snoring, farting scenarios (again this is with over a dozen people sleeping like sardines in a living room.), to the teasing common amongst siblings (not always good natured), to the awkward deadpan that made "The Bands Visit" so charming and winning. These moments of domestic intrigue erupt in a family Royal Rumble sized argument, that seems that simmers and pops the whole film over.
Aside from the acting muscles being flexed, the film is fascinating in it's slow reveal of the culture and tradition, which appears as a series of prohibitions the characters begrudgingly accept or righteously demand. Prohibitions like, no eating meat, no talking about business or money, all mirrors and pictures must be covered in black clothe, no one of the primary seven may leave the house, and no one may go to the upstairs bedrooms. Though minimalist and closed off(the film takes place aside from two scenes which bookend it, completely within the house), it has moments of surreal and black humor, with it's covered frames hanging against white walls. The best scene to describe the film, and in the film, comes at the beginning.
The first image we see is that of a group of mourning women and men behind them, crying hysterically over what we assume is a grave. The camera remains static for several minutes as the women wail and the men console each other. Then an air raid siren goes off, and still wailing and moaning the gathered family take out gas masks they keep in boxes next to them at all times. Now the entire funeral wearing gas masks continue their crying, in business as usual. Stunned silence in the audience slowly gave way to giggles and outright laughter, and later in a brilliant reversal this scene is replayed in a sense when we go from giggles back to stunned silence. The effect is much stronger than anything Ive seen in a film this bare and naturalistic in quite a long time.
The Elkabetze's have found a way of making a genre I usually avoid, the minimalist domestic drama, into something vibrant, devastating, and poignant on a number of levels, for the community of Moroccan Israeli's, the country in general, and finally the world(who as I said earlier deal with issues of financial crisis, the stress of tradition, and the roles and rights of women). Still it has the ring and feel of a personal story, one of brothers and sisters, death and endurance. I say endurance because this is the Iditarod of funerals, where given the amount of time and the closed off space it doesn't feel at all cliche that they should laugh and cry, curse and pray. Unsentimental and also not merely deconstructive, "Seven Days", is one of only a handful of dramas of this sort, I like enough to recommend.

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