Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Mexico's big award-winner NORA'S WILL, from Mariana Chenillo, opens at last in NYC

Every few years a foreign-language film comes along that gets such amazing word-of-mouth that it takes off into the small, independent, art-house stratosphere. Without all that much help from the major critics, the movie manages to coral the ever-increasing older set -- who still go to movies with some regularity and let each other know when they've found one they love.

Tell No One, from 2006, was such a film (though it had some major critical approval and a very smart distributor behind it). Even more so was Gloomy Sunday, the German/Hungarian co-production from 2001 that made huge art-house waves via a much smaller (but also smart) distributor and with much less critical backing. Now comes a film that I predict will be one of those word-of-mouth sensations that audiences take to heart and recommend to all their friends: NORA'S WILL by writer/director Mariana Chenillo (shown below).  This dramedy about a funeral, a family and a marriage is the movie that walked away with seven of Mexico's "Oscar" equivalent -- the Ariel awards -- including Best Picture of the Year.

Although the film is very funny, and though I urge you to see it, expect no crass laughs.  It may initially remind you of My Mexican Shiva, a film that was somewhat crass (but still awfully good fun). Very soon Chenillo's movie takes on its own specific and sweet character. You'll have a smile on your face for much of its length -- until it takes you into unexpectedly moving territory without ever becoming maudlin. At the point toward the finale in which the film suddenly deepens and broadens enormously, I don't know whether you will smile, cry or hold your breath in disbelief that a mere movie can accomplish what has just happened -- and so quietly, unas-sumingly that you may not, for some moments, know what hit you. (The way that Chenillo negotiates the final moments results in an ending that, from a visual standpoint, is as wonderful as that of Once -- which, to my mind, has one of the most perfect endings in the history of cinema.)  This is a comedy as Shakespeare understood the word: Problems, and their attending pathos, are waiting just around the corner.

Nora's Will deals with a depressed woman, her put-upon ex-husband, extended family and religious community (the clan is Jewish). Among the many gifts the film bestows is the widening of our understanding of not just what religion can do to us, but what we can do to religion. This supplies much of the film's humor, which is not once pushed beyond the point of believability. This is a quiet film but never for an instant is it dull. Something is always happening, and this keeps us on our toes. Ms Chenillo's approach as writer/director is to give us a passel of characters, most of whom appear initially negative. As the film progresses, we come to understand them, and they bloom.

I hope it will not be taken amiss -- or sexist -- if I say that I cannot imagine this movie having been directed by a man (unless that man were Rodrigo Garcia). It is too alert, observant and humane. There are no villains (unless you ascribe that role to one very angry, or maybe hurt, rabbi). This is as full-bodied a group of people as I have seen in a modern comedy/drama, and the film's cast enlivens each rich character with life and depth.

The leading role is essayed by Fernando Luján (above), who brings a wonderful sense of had-it-up-to-here anger, spiced with humor and affection, for (the anger, especially) religion, society, and his late wife. The rest of the well-chosen cast makes each character specific and often very funny, though no one ventures beyond the bounds of reality. Chenillo appears to have a sixth sense regarding how much to show and tell -- and exactly when to do it. Hers is one of the most accomplished full-length film debuts in a long while.

Nora's Will was first seen in the USA during the summer of 2009 as part of the FSLC's LatinBeat festival (that's when I first saw it). Now distributed by Menemsha Films, after its recording-breaking Florida run, it will open at New York City's longest continuously-running art house, the Paris Theater, on October 15. Already playing in Washington DC (at the Avalon Theater), the film will soon be seen in both L.A. and Boston on October 29) and in Portland (though whether it's Maine or Oregon, I'm not certain) on November 17. Menemsha's Neil Friedman promises us many more cities to come.

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