'One Week and a Day': An Israeli Film That Makes Fun of Grief

Poster One Day

In no other film industry are death and its rituals so omnipresent as they are in Israeli cinema. Aficionados of locally made movies will no doubt recall any number of funeral scenes and visits to cemeteries in them. Even if the reasons for death's pervasiveness and an attendant preoccupation with mourning are fairly obvious, I'll leave the formal analysis to sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists. What's clear, though, is that the constant harping on death and its ceremonial adjuncts is not a particularly heartwarming trait.

Asaph Polonsky's debut feature "Shavua ve Yom" ("One Week and a Day"), which had its world premiere at this year's Cannes Film Festival, is also about how people cope with death. In this case, though, there's an attempt to strike a different tone. The story of parents Eyal (Shai Avivi) and Vicky (Evgenia Dodina), whose 25-year-old son Ronnie died of cancer, is imbued with a comic tone. (An earlier Israeli film about mourning, "Shiva," by siblings Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz, also contained comic elements.) Because of the grim situation it depicts, I hesitate to label Polonsky's movie a comedy. Still, it's precisely comedies, when they are well written and endowed with intelligence and integrity, that often accentuate humanity more judiciously than other genres.

Polonsky, who displays considerable filmmaking and writing skills here, plus a flair for working with actors, chooses to begin the story at the end of the shiva (the seven-day Jewish mourning period). His focus is on the day after, and the different ways in which the mother and father confront the need to resume their lives following their son's death. Vicky believes in the power of returning to routine. An elementary school teacher, she returns to work the day after the shiva. Encountering the substitute teacher, who never imagined that Vicky would return to work so quickly, she demands his removal from the classroom in no uncertain terms. She also keeps a dental appointment that had been arranged before her son's death. Dodina's performance is precise and moving, but the character she plays is secondary to that of her husband. Eyal doesn't know how to go on with his life in the wake of the family tragedy. He calls his work to announce that he won't be coming in and goes through the day in a daze, accompanied by Zooler (Tomer Kapon), the neighbors' son. Vicky and Eyal have not been on speaking terms with Zooler's parents (Sharon Alexander and Carmit Mesilati-Kaplan), formerly their good friends, because they spurned them when their son's illness became known.

Zooler, meanwhile, was once Ronnie's best friend, and their relations were also severed. But Eyal needs Zooler. On a visit to the hospice where Ronnie died, in search of his son's beloved blanket, Eyal finds the medicinal cannabis Ronnie had been taking, and claims it as his legitimate inheritance. Never having rolled a joint in his life, Eyal enlists the aid of Zooler, a young man who's a delivery boy for a local Japanese restaurant. Zooler exudes boundless hyperactive energy but is clueless about his plans, if any, for the future. He lives in the moment, which is what Eyal also seems to want: To get through each moment without thinking about how and when he will be able to continue his life. Currying favor ?with audiences

In addition to Eyal's visit to the hospice, where he meets a sweet girl who is ill (a narrative element that injects a degree of sentimentality that the picture had successfully avoided until then), his first post-shiva day consists of some wild times with Zooler, playing pop music at full blast and a return visit to the cemetery when he realizes he forgot to reserve the plot next to his son's for himself and his wife. A major screw up. Vicky follows all this in her seemingly controlled way. Her response to her husband's collapse - and what Eyal experiences is a form of collapse - adds a core of restraint to the film.

However, along with some excellent scenes in this overall impressive film (certainly for a debut), other scenes attest to a cinematic glibness and demonstrative attempt to curry favor, at times bordering on pleading. It feels that Polonsky relied so heavily on the central conceit driving the movie - to imbue the story with a comic dimension? - that it works almost too well, without a measure of restraint or even coarseness in it.

"One Week and a Day" seems to cosy up to its audience; its stylistic choices do not challenge the viewer at any stage. I would have preferred a less complete but more demanding movie, particularly in regard to Polonsky's choice of how to deal with the mourning of the parents. In short, the picture is too facile. There is something a bit off-putting about the fact that a very young director has made such a skilled first film without apparently going through the stage of soul-searching that a debut effort usually entails. Does the movie really need all those jokes, some of which fall flat, or the scenes in which Zooler runs wild, which seem to be there to extend the film's duration and fill it with what feels like coerced cinematic momentum? A little more gravitas wouldn't have hurt. Far from detracting from the film's basic concept, it would have empowered and enriched it. Fortunately, gravitas does enter the movie toward the end thanks to a screenwriting ploy that demonstrates Polonsky's ability to smartly extricate himself from the limitations I've mentioned. In their visit to the cemetery, Eyal and those with him encounter the funeral of a young woman whose brother, Refael (Uri Gavriel, excellent as always), delivers an articulate, moving eulogy for her. The introduction of this character, who is seemingly unrelated to the plot, ratchets the movie up a notch, even if the depiction of the developing relations between Eyal and Refael reverts to the attempt to curry favor and play too easily on our emotions. It's hard to imagine what this film would have been like without its fine cast. In addition to Dodina and Gavriel, there is Avivi. We haven't previously seen him carry a film, but that's exactly what he does here - and the whole movie flourishes as a result.

Ultimately, "One Week and a Day" is rife with contradictions, and so is the viewer's experience. It's certainly worth seeing: the pleasures it offers are enough to satisfy the audience. Still, there's something about it that strives too much for perfection, and that bothered me, because in essence it's a totally mainstream perfection. From a director as obviously talented as Polonsky, I was expecting something a little less mainstream. It poses as daring, but it's not - it's a display of sophisticated skill that is fully aware of its mainstream cinematic sources. Given his undeniable talent, my hope for Polonsky is that he will be less responsive to it in future and put it to the test of authentic and truly daring creativity.