Beginning writers and filmmakers are always told, “Write what you know.” While that is certainly sound advice, it should come with a warning label that reads, “May lead to hurt feelings among friends and family, screaming, yelling, possible bloody nose.” Mariana Chenillo, whose superb first feature film “Nora’s Will” opens on Friday, managed to avoid all of those pitfalls, but drawing on her family history for the film’s story was not without its nervous moments.
“It’s the story of my [maternal] grandparents,” Chenillo says. “I was worried; What would my family feel? We were at the opening night film for the Mexican Jewish Film Festival, and I thought of telling the organizers, ‘No, they won’t want to see it.”’
The premise of the film, which was inspired by the real suicide of Chenillo’s grandmother, is simple. A couple of days before Pesach, Nora prepares her house for the holiday, then quietly takes several bottles of medication and dies in her own bed. Her ex-husband Jose (Fernando Luján), who lives across the street, finds her and sets in motion the machinery of mourning and burial. Except, of course, that in the case of a suicide and a chaotic family constellation, the machinery stubbornly refuses to run smoothly. And for about 45 minutes, the mounting complications are quietly but joltingly funny in a bleak, deadpan manner; that sense is fueled by the remarkable subtlety of Luján’s performance as a cynical, weary man who has suffered with his wife’s (or as he keeps reminding the rabbi, “ex-wife’s”) 14 suicide attempts and emotional manipulations. (The film wisely eschews dime-store psychology, never explaining the source of Nora’s depression.)
You can see why Chenillo was a bit reluctant to have the family on hand for the triumphant premiere.
“I let my mother read the screenplay first, and she was great,” Chenillo says, picking at her lunch. “My grandfather [who was the model for Jose] wanted to read the screenplay, and I wouldn’t let him. I was afraid that if he didn’t like it … well, I already had half the money.”
Chenillo couldn’t keep him away from the film itself forever. Grandfather missed a special pre-festival screening when he was ill, but he was fully recovered a week later for the film festival opening night.
In a moment out of her own film, Chenillo hid in the projection booth.
When the film was over, she came downstairs with trepidation to find her grandfather waiting for her.
“ ‘I never said that God doesn’t exist,’ he told me,” Chenillo recalls with a broad grin.
Other than that, he loved the film, was proud of his granddaughter and delighted to be the center of attention. His first task was to speak with Luján. The two conversed animatedly for what seemed like a very long time. Afterwards, Chenillo told her somewhat bewildered star, “He wanted to tell you the story of his life.”
As Chenillo says with palpable relief, “They’ve reacted pretty well.”
There haven’t been any sustained explosions from the Mexico City Jewish world, either. The film depicts a Jewish community that will be familiar to any Jew, regardless of location — split between lenient and strict interpretations of halacha, and inhabited by rabbis who occasionally cater to their richest congregants. (Imagine that!)
Chenillo herself was raised in a mildly observant household.
“We went to non-religious schools, but were very conscious of the traditions,” she says. “My mom, she’s the one who kept us involved. We knew every festival, when it was and why it was important. I grew up very aware and very curious about Jewish traditions.”
It is a curiosity that has stood her in good stead while making this film, which the critics, the Mexican film industry, film festival organizers and audiences have received extremely well. “Nora’s Will” won seven Ariel awards, the Mexican film industry’s equivalent of the Oscar, and a lengthy list of festival prizes.
Not surprisingly, Chenillo looks back on the entire process with a mixture of fondness and discomfort.
“The real struggle for me was in the writing of the screenplay,” she says. “‘Nora’s Will’ was so personal, had so much meaning for me, it was a big struggle to be objective.”
The turning point in the writing process came when Chenillo realized that for material so filled with people’s pain to be bearable to watch, she would have to include a lot of humor.
“Humor allows fiction to talk about painful events without the spectator closing off,” she explains. “I had been thinking of this screenplay for a long time, but it didn’t have a form until I realized it needed humor.”
But in the second half of the film, with the arrival of Nora’s and Jose’s son, his wife and two little girls, the humor is quite deliberately drained out of the film. Slowly, almost agonizingly slowly, the family tensions are aired and, finally, exorcised. Jose at last is redeemed and redeems — a perfect conclusion for a film that closes with a seder, with its promise of redemption.
Her real-life family had undergone a similar process of reconciliation, more than once, as Chenillo says.
“All four of my grandparents came to Mexico just before the [Second World] War,” she recounts. As refugees from the Nazis, “They had lost something precious. My grandmother had decided, we can start over, and not pass that [lost thing] on to our children.”
The granddaughter couldn’t recover what was left behind in Europe, but by using the film to provide a sense of closure and reconciliation about her grandmother’s suicide, she has done something very similar for what might have been otherwise unendurable in the New World. n
“Nora’s Will,” directed and written by Mariana Chenillo, opens Friday, Oct. 15 at the Paris Theater (4 W. 58th St.). For information, call (212) 688-3800 or go to www.theparistheatre.com.