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September 17, 2009

My Mexican Shivah

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Morirse esta en Hebreo
Alejandro Springall - 2007
Emerging Pictures Region 1 DVD

I finally saw Go for Zucker a couple of months ago. Like My Mexican Shivah the bulk of the film takes place during the shivah, the traditional Jewish one week mourning period, with family members uncomfortably getting together, and life disrupting all plans. Both films examine in varying degrees the differences in Jewish and national identities. What strikes me as somewhat odd is that, discounting Woody Allen's films which really don't announce themselves as being about Jewish identity as a subject, there has been nothing in contemporary Hollywood cinema that I can recall since Sidney Lumet's Bye Bye Braverman (1968) and Jan Kadar's The Angel Levine (1970) that was was not a period film. There seems to be a timidity over the past fifty years in the U.S. entertainment industry so that television as shifted from the obviousness of The Goldbergs to the Jewishness that dares not speak its name of Seinfeld, and even Adam Sandler, who I find funnier with his "Hanukkah Song" than most of his films, wastes an opportunity with Eight Crazy Nights. But I digress . . .

The cultural clash in My Mexican Shivah is presented in the opening scene with a formally dressed mariachi band playing Klezmer music for a group of actors dining on stage. The actors are all older people well into their Sixties or Seventies. One of the men, Moishe, dances exuberantly until he suddenly falls to the floor, dead. The majority of the film takes place within the apartment of his daughter, with relatives and friends crowding in to participate in the mourning ritual or show up briefly to pay their respects. Observing the activities are two angels, two grandfatherly types, that is, if your grandfather came from the shtetl, writing notes on Moishe's credits and debits, for eventual judgement on his life.

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A chevreman, a funeral coordinator, tries to police the family in maintaining the rules, such as covering of pictures and mirrors, and what foods are eaten, as well as the prayer rituals. Helping are two maids unfamiliar with anyone or anything Jewish, learning the rules of Kosher food preparation and serving using colored plates. During the family prayers, one of the maids offers her own prayers to an altar that is a hodge podge of Mexican Catholic and Jewish artifacts, a large Star of David in close proximity to the Virgin Mary. Among the quests at the house is a non-observant man whose presence causes discomfort for some of the other men, as well as Moishe's Catholic mistress who conducts her own memorial service at a church. Like Go for Zucker, the main drama is between battling relatives, as well as two very different cousins who rediscover each other, and are mutually attracted, in spite and because of their differences.

Beyond whatever ethnic humor is to be gleaned from the title, as well as some of the events, in My Mexican Shivah, are some very universal concerns. Acting as a comic Greek chorus, the Yiddish conversing angels, Aleph and Bet frame the main theme of how one chooses to evaluate the life of another, how that person is to be remembered. Some of the conflicts are in regards to the spirit and letter of religious belief. At one point, the daughter who is acting as hostess for the shivah throws out some food because kosher laws were disregarded, calling mixed food and preparation a sin. One of the maids remarks that throwing out the food is a sin. Alejandro Springall has affection for all of the characters, so that one could say neither woman is wrong, even their reasons are at cross purposes. For the characters in My Mexican Shivah, it is whatever can be vaguely recognized as what is similar in purpose or need that brings people together that is of greater value than any real or imagined differences.

Although I was not familiar with Alejandro Springall's name, I found I was familiar with some of his other work with John Sayles and Guillermo del Toro. A name that might be more recognizable for some is that of The Klezmatics, the band that provides most of the music for the film. The basis for the film is a story by Ilan Stavans. The English language title suggests a one note joke, but the film is both sweeter, sadder, and more substantial.

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Posted by peter at September 17, 2009 12:10 AM