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SF Jewish Film Festival: ‘My Mexican Shivah’

Posted by FriarYid on July 24, 2007

My Mexican Shivah image

I got to see My Mexican Shivah at the SF Jewish Film Festival last night, and have to say, it was quite a treat. I got the call to head out at late notice, so I arrived not knowing anything about the film in advance, including that it was subtitled. Luckily, the dialogue tended to be punchy with a lot of pauses, which allowed the subtitles to keep up without (as far as I could tell) losing too much in translation. Unfortunately I forgot that the Castro theater has no house lights on when the movie is playing, so I wound up writing my notes blind! Needless to say, this made for a very interesting viewing experience. [View the video trailer]

The basic plot: Moishe is the elderly bonvivant patriarch of a small(ish) Jewish family in Mexico City, with a large circle of friends and a lot of secrets. When he dies suddenly, the family (both by blood and otherwise) are left trying to honor his memory by following the appropriate Jewish mourning traditions, while gradually discovering that the real Moishe was a lot more than he seemed. We meet a whole elaborate cast of characters, including the Orthodox head of the chevra kaddisha, who drives everyone crazy by trying to make sure the shivah proceeds according to the most exacting of standards (while simultaneously trying to sell them as much kosher food and accessories as possible); a gaggle of would-be Linda Richmans from Moishe’s theater club; and a wild assortment of alte kockers from the Old Country. The real focus is on Moishe’s two middle-aged children: Esther, the quintessential henpecking, take-no-prisoners balabusta Jewish mother, and Ricardo, a would-be businessman and playboy, like his father. Esther and Ricardo’s kids also show up; Ari, an Israeli, and his wife and kids, Galia, a college student in New York, and Nicolas, a Hasid in an Israeli yeshiva. As if regular family misheggos and the added stress of saying goodbye to a loved one (particularly a “complicated” one) wasn’t enough, we also see two ghostly Yiddish speaking black-hats (I called them “the Heavenly Hasids” in my notes) who are observing the whole proceedings and jotting down notes in a blank book, trying to decide if Moishe’s soul is going to be escorted by “light” angels or “dark” ones. In the course of the movie, we also discover that nearly everbody in Moishe’s circle were also keeping secrets, some about him, and some about themselves. We are left contemplating the very real complexities of life, family and personality, not only of Moishe, but of everybody.

The movie contains a lot of really great humor, especially from the running commentary between the two Hasids. Director Alejandro Springall revealed during the Q&A that the two men, named Aleph and Bet, represent the traditions from Moishe’s Polish shtetl. In Springall’s mind, tradition is a force that, regardless of one’s background or religiosity, “is always present.” The family’s Catholic maids are also a real hoot. Highlights include the new maid, Trini, cutting meat “with the meat knife”, to make cracker sandwiches of meat and cheese, as well as her peeping in through the kitchen during the Kaddish at the home and whispering to her friend (presently praying in front of a mini-shrine of icons), “Hey, did you know they say Amen, too? Cool!”

Other great lines: “Let’s get this Kaddish rolling!”- Ricardo, trying to be optimistic

“They called me a fucking Red…Excuse my Yiddish.”- Rubinstein the Communist

“I shit on shivah!”- Ricardo, really pissed off.

The real interest for me was not so much the story per se, but the setting around it. Apparently this is only the second Mexican film about a Jewish theme, and the first to have Yiddish in it. The choice to have the focus be on Spanish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews was particularly interesting, and in addition to creating a more dramatic contrast between the cultures (the opening scene features an extended klezmer-mariachi tsants courtesy of the Klezmatics), will probably help the film resonate more with American (largely Ashkenazic) audiences who will relate more easily to the Jewish content than they might if it was in Spanish AND dealt with Sephardic Jews. On a personal note, a branch of my own extended family left Poland for Mexico (and Uruguay) in the 30s and lived there until the mid-90s, when a bunch of them made aliyah, so this was a neat opportunity to get a sense of what their lives and traditions there must have been like.

A few complaints (but only a few!): with so many characters, it’s very easy to get lost in the shuffle. A bunch of people’s names and relationships aren’t given or explained until thirty or forty minutes into the film, and, particularly given the subtitles, this can be a little tricky to follow. Similarly, some of the characters never quite seemed to justify their existence in the scenes- there are about five or six nameless old biddies that keep cycling in and out, for instance. Sure, they provide some entertaining moments, but I wasn’t sure if we needed all of them. I was also disappointed with the uneven use of Moishe’s grandkids. Galia and Nicolas get a lot of screentime (including quite a few awkward romantic moments between the cousins), particularly once Nicolas’ own less-than-squeaky background is revealed. By contrast, Ari, the “other” cousin who arrives with a wife and few kids in tow, gets a single angry speech when he confronts Moishe’s mistress (second wife?) for daring to show her face at the shivah. Why have Ari there in the first place? Why bother having a (seemingly) Modern Orthodox oleh in the picture if none of those attributes inform his decisions or behavior? I figured if nothing else we would get some dialogue about what he was up to, or chiding the rest of the family for not getting on a plane. Instead… nothing.

Similarly, though I definitely understood, and appreciated, the dynamic between the largely secular (though quasi-traditionalist) family and the Orthodox standards of the chevra kaddisha man and Nicolas, the lack of any middle ground kind of annoyed me. I wanted more information and background about how Judaism and Jewishness affected and informed the rest of the family, or didn’t. Instead all we get is them sort of bemusedly going through the motions. Couldn’t there have been at least one family member who was neither totally assimilated nor Orthodox? The closest we get is a scene with an old Communist friend of Moishe who is alternately refused from, and then actively refuses to, participate in the minyan because of his atheism. Alsol, while Aleph and Bet are great comic relief (while also giving us a hint that something more spiritually significant is going on here), they do sort of exemplify the “decrepit old shtetl Jew” archetype a little too much, and after a while they started giving me a weird gnome vibe. And the movie doesn’t really end with them offering any real conclusion about Moishe’s fate. That’s fine, but it sort of undercuts the supposed reason they’re there in the first place.

These quibblings aside, though, the movie really is a lot of fun. Springall’s decision to keep most of the focus on the family home (80% of the shots are there, and I’d say a good 50-60% are in the living room) helps center the story and provides the movie with an excellent sort of frenetic mania that seemed both appropriate to the occasion as well as true to the experience of having a family dynamic of people that don’t necessarily get along and who aren’t completely honest with each other.

The Q&A afterward was very informative, too. Springall is half-Jewish, but because it’s from his father’s side, he wasn’t raised Jewish, but did have all sorts of Jewish relatives and acquaintances that informed the characters in the film. Originally the story (which was written over the course of a weekend in collaboration with Amherst scholar Ilan Stavans) interwove the shivah story with the election of President Vicente Fox, but Springall ultimately opted to ditch the politics in favor of the characters. You can tell Springall is really passionate about this movie: he needed to get permission from the Mexican Kehillah to shoot the Jewish cemetery as well as the room where the chevra kadisha performs tahara, or the final ritual purification ceremony. The Kehillah had no problem with him filming the cemetery, but drew the line at tahara. So Springall joined the chevra kadisha and actually performed three tahara ceremonies himself, so that when it came time to film the scene, he knew exactly what he was doing. He brings this same fierce attention to accuracy and detail to everything in the movie. Asked if there was any ad-libbing (he uses a lot of very long takes), Springall vigorously denied it. “We meticulously rehearsed everything, because we had no time to waste. I needed the actors to come in and immediately be in character and know what their character was doing.”

Springall repeatedly commented that he sees Mexican Shivah as an opportunity to let the world (Jewish and otherwise) know that the Mexican Jewish community exists, something he was surprised to discover most people don’t know. “It’s time people know about us and that we are an important community.” I can’t comment on how wide a non-Jewish audience his film will grab, but certainly among Jews, I think this movie is going to be a big hit- as long as people aren’t scared off by subtitles.

You can still catch ‘My Mexican Shivah’ at the film festival when it comes to the Aquarius Theatre in Palo Alto on July 28th, 7 PM

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7 Responses to “SF Jewish Film Festival: ‘My Mexican Shivah’”

  1. […] SF Jewish Film Festival: ‘My Mexican Shivah’Alas! We are Forsaken! Today is Tisha B’AvYoung Jews Return to AIDS Walk SFBay Area Journalist Pete Wilson DiesDog pile on Jewish singles […]

  2. rafael said

    i would like to buy this movie…… .can you please tell where I ca purchase it ???

  3. Oyster said

    Sorry Rafael, I have no clue! A cursory search on Google turned up nada. I’d recommend contacting the Jewish Film Festival staff, who can in turn get you in touch with the movie producer / distributor.

    Good luck, and let us know how it goes!

    ~T

  4. Suzan Eagle said

    I thought this film was just great, I did not see it in a film festival but on Pay Per View at home.
    they charged more than the regular rate but it was worth it.
    I thought the acting, directing, and music were outstanding.

  5. Oyster said

    Rats, I need to go & catch that film. Sounds great! Thanks for the review, Suzan. :-p

  6. It’s playing November 9, at 5pm as part of the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival. http://www.svjff.org/films/mymexicanshiva.shtml It’s playing at the Camera 12 in San Jose.

  7. […] Friar Yid of Oy-bay saw it at the San Francisco Film Festival 2 years ago and loved it! Check out his review to find out for […]

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