My Mexican Shivah is quite the hybrid, a feature film that unfolds in Spanish, Yiddish and Hebrew in contemporary Mexico City. Alejandro Springall’s drama/comedy, based on a novel by Ilan Stavans, is now being screened online by the Toronto Jewish Film Foundation.
It’s divided into seven segments, each representing a day of a week-long shivah to mark the sudden passing of Moishe, a 75-year-old Polish Jews who drops dead while dancing to the beat of a traditional mariachi band.
The shivah brings out family quarrels and secrets, as well as personality clashes.
Moishe’s daughter, Esther (Raquel Pankowsky), asks her adult daughter, Galia (Sharon Zundel), a provocative question: Are you still a virgin? A stupid question, she replies, fending off that issue.
Riccardo (David Ostrovsky), Moishe’s son, has an argument with his son, Nicolas (Emilio Savinni), and threatens to punch him in the teeth. It isn’t clear what is at the root of the tension, but Nicolas, having spent time in Israel, has returned to Mexico as an ultra-Orthodox Jew and looks the part. Galia, Nicolas’ old flame, teases him.
When the rabbi asks a man with pronounced left-wing views to join a minyan, he archly refuses. Esther, meanwhile, throws out food that has been rendered unkosher by an unknowing Mexican waitress. A man named Beto makes a brief and unsettling appearance when he tries to collect a $2,000 debt incurred by Moishe.
Shortly after Esther announces her plan to submit to cosmetic surgery following the shivah, police arrive with an arrest warrant for Nicolas on a drug charge. His mother, Ruth, grows hysterical after learning he has been detained.
Members of the mariachi band show up, only to be informed that music is banned during shivahs. Esther complains of a tooth ache, but her husband says she can visit a dentist only after the shivah.
Much to Esther’s consternation, Julia (Blanca Guerra), Moishe’s Catholic girlfriend, makes an appearance. Surprisingly enough, Riccardo tries to seduce her. “I’m at your mercy,” he says.
As these vignettes unfurl, two wizened, white-bearded ultra-Orthodox Jews clad in caftans sit in judgment of Moishe and his extended family and friends, tallying their virtues and vices. They communicate in Yiddish.
My Mexican Shivah, which was released in 2008, is mildly entertaining and certainly exotic by the standards of modern Mexican cinema.