“I’m not healthy,” says the grief-stricken father, asking the doctor for some medicinal marijuana. “You’re not sick, either,” she replies. It’s a quick exchange in Israeli writer-director Asaph Polonsky’s droll debut, typical of his movie’s mordant sense of humor, but the moment leaves its mark — seldom has dialogue so succinctly articulated the purgatory of profound loss.
Sitting Shiva, as the opening title card of “One Week and a Day” informs the uninitiated, is a Jewish postmortem tradition in which the family of the deceased welcome mourners into their home for a week following the funeral. The effect of the ritual is twofold: On one hand, it offers people a wide window to come and pay their respects to the dead. On the other, it allows those who are most acutely affected by the loss to take a deep breath and put some distance between themselves and the world at large — it’s a buffer zone stuffed full of gift baskets, bad sandwiches and recycled small talk.
But grief can’t thrive in a space where everyone is hyper-sensitive to your suffering; in a room where everyone is seeing the same ghost. No, grief only gets its hands dirty when Shiva ends, and you wake up the next morning to an empty house and a world that doesn’t know what you’re going through. A hole in your heart won’t stop that bird from shitting on your windshield right after you pull out of the garage.
“One Week and a Day” opens during the waning minutes of Vicky and Eyal’s Shiva for their 25-year-old son, Ronnie. It’s been seven days since the first guests starting shuffling through their house in the suburbs of Israel, and Eyal (Shai Avivi) — establishing the film’s droll tone — all but shoves the last of the mourners out of his front door. Left alone in their living room, it immediately becomes clear that he and Vicky (Evgenia Dodina) are coping in very different ways; she’s itching to get back into the swing of things, while he’s flopping around in a pair of shorts and making no overtures towards returning to work. Instead, Eyal heads back to the hospital where his son died, hoping to retrieve a blanket that they forgot to take home from the oncology ward. The young cancer patient who has moved into Ronnie’s former bed is too frail to help Eyal on his search, but he points the anxious man to something better: A large packet of premium weed.
Things are already looking up. There’s just one problem: Eyal is a middle-aged shopkeeper who can’t roll a joint to save his life (Polonsky, displaying a rare patience for slow-burn comedy, watches for what feels like several minutes as his protagonist tries to use a gummy worm to funnel his papers into shape). Enter Zooler (Tomer Kapon), the stoner son of Eyal and Vicky’s nymphomaniac neighbors. An endearing burnout who was once friends with Ronnie before it became too much of a social risk to hang out with a kid three years his junior, Zooler is the perfect foil for a guy who just wants to get high, play ping-pong and delay the inevitable wallop of loss that’s waiting for him in the outside world.
The two men have an instant chemistry (imagine a more light-hearted version of the Lester Burnham/Ricky Fitts dynamic), and they get blazed enough to allow for all sorts of low-key misadventures involving baby kittens and wild air guitar routines. When Eyal mocks Zooler for wailing on his fake whammy bar, the kid tells his new friend. “The fact that you don’t see it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.” The on-the-nose double meaning is a bit of an eye-roller, but Polonksy keeps those pointed moments to a minimum, and the actors help each of them sting a bit harder than they should.
Vicky, alas, isn’t having quite as much fun. A longtime schoolteacher, she returns to work at the earliest opportunity, only to find that her sub — who had been promised a long stint of work — is refusing to leave. Her storyline is naturally a bit more solemn than Eyal’s, but she’ll eventually get high to, because this is just that kind of movie.
Following two very different paths of mourning as they wend in strange directions before ultimately knotting together in the same place, “One Week and a Day” is a sweet and subdued look at the absurdity of life after death. Polonsky works small wonders with his excellent cast, and even when the film surrenders to the unfortunate temptation of having an actual plot (Eyal’s quest to reserve the burial plots next to Ronnie’s grave turns into a “Little Miss Sunshine”-esque romp involving Zooler and a precocious young girl), Avivi keeps things believable by channeling the specific mania of a man who’s trying to claw his way back into the world. Dodina, while burdened with the less animated role, helps the story maintain a careful balance, and her measured performance pays off huge dividends in the charming final scene.
That “One Week and a Day” ultimately bites off a little more story than it needs is frustrating for a movie that has such an exquisite handle on the details of desolation, but it’s easy to forgive Polonsky for trying to wiggle his way out of the same moribund mood pocket that his characters are so desperate to escape. There’s no shortcut through grief — in fact, there may not be any way to get to the other side. Shiva lasts a week, but the “One Day” that follows can last for a lifetime. What’s true of Polonsky’s film is also true of life: A little laughter goes a long way.
“One Week and a Day” premieres this week at the Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.