I’m a Jew provincial enough to have only the vaguest notion about what gentiles do when a loved one dies. Non-Jews, and assimilated Jews, may be surprised, intrigued, or revolted by Shiv‘a , an award-winning Israeli/French film by Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz. The film chronicles the traditional week of mourning observed by the large Moroccan-French-Israeli Ohaion family when a brother, Maurice, dies unexpectedly. A silent, stern-faced family matriarch and nine brothers and sisters, with their spouses, spend the week of mourning in the well-appointed Haifa apartment of the dead man’s widow and two young sons—sitting and eating on the floor, sleeping all together on twin mattresses in the living room, and churning their loves and hatreds, loves and rivalries, grudges and financial complications.
Shiv‘a—The Seven Days in English, a title that fails to convey the weight of the prescribed week-long mourning ritual—presents itself as a slice-of-life film. We viewers are eavesdroppers on the family’s week of alternately comforting and oppressive togetherness. We move from room to room, listening in on multilingual conversations not meant for our ears, hearing about secret affairs and about the failure of brother Haim’s successful factory, where he has employed several of his brothers.
The Elkabetzes, who wrote and directed the film, achieve one goal—we feel as if we, too, are spending an entire week in close quarters with a family we both love and need to get away from. The intimacy of this week of grief and of the mourning rituals that erase distinctions of money and age, recreate the Ohaion family as it was when the children were small and entirely dependent on their parents and their siblings.
The film’s shortcomings derive from the same ambition. A two-hour film cannot really chronicle a week of mourning; the realism is, in the end, a literary construct. Little details keep reminding us that essential parts of the picture are missing. While we see Maurice’s sons, we don’t see any of their cousins or friends, who would certainly be among the visitors. While we see that one sister, Simona, barely speaks to her siblings, we get no adequate explanation of why that is, or why she has nevertheless joined them in their week of mourning (her outburst, one night when all the brothers and sisters are settling on their mattresses, confuses rather than enlightens us). The week of mourning portrayed on the screen omits the Sabbath, when mourning rituals are not in effect and which thus provides an opportunity for the grievers to get some relief from their close quarters.
Inevitably, given the size of the family, none of the characters can be developed to the point that we feel we know them well. So while we experience the week of mourning as a member of the family, we emerge from it feeling like outsiders.
Israeli viewers also have to deal with a dissonance that foreign viewers will not feel. The Elkabetzes have cast two of Israel’s leading comediennes in major roles—Hana Laszlo as Haim’s wife, Ita, and Keren Mor as Maurice’s widow, Ilana. Laszlo is convincing enough as the family’s token Ashkenazi that I wasn’t in least reminded of the raunchy jokes she fired when I saw her live show a few years ago. But Mor (who is a serious theater actress in addition to her comedy work) speaks with the same lilt and mannerisms she used on the late great comedy sketch show Ketzarim and, despite my best efforts, I kept expecting a punchline from the brokenhearted wife and mother.
Shiv‘a is worth seeing for its achievement as a realistic portrayal of a certain kind of Israeli family. Despite its rough spots, it succeeds in bringing us into an intimate relationship with a family in mourning.