'One Week and a Day' ('Shavua Ve Yom'): Cannes Review

One Week and One Day - H 2016
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Affecting and amusing in equal measure.

Israeli writer-director Asaph Polonsky's first feature stars Shai Avivi, Evgenia Dodina and Tomer Kapon and debuted in the Critics' Week sidebar.

It might seem like the mourning process of a middle-aged Israeli couple could only involve ingredients such as heavy weed smoking and air-guitar practice in an all-out comedy, but the strength of Asaph Polonsky’s debut feature, One Week and a Day (Shavua Ve Yom), is that it’s actually a bittersweet comedy-drama in which the pain is as real as the frequent chuckles. Part of the Critics’ Week lineup in Cannes, this Week is both confidently directed and beautifully played, with art house distributors worldwide certain to take an interest in this first film, which manages to be both very recognizable and accessible yet singular enough to set it apart from its brethren.

One Week and a Day opens on the seventh and last day of the Jewish morning period of shiva, with Eyal (Shai Avivi) and Vicky (Evgenia Dodina) trying to get back to their lives a week after the burial of their 25-year-old son, Ronnie. For Vicky, this means going back to the primary school where she teaches, while Eyal phones up work and tells them he won’t be coming in just yet, instead preferring to go to the hospice where Ronnie spent his last days (one assumes he died of cancer though no one dares to utter the c-word). He goes there to ostensibly find a blanket they left there, but instead Eyal comes back with a bag of Ronnie’s leftover medicinal weed.

Polonsky, who also wrote the screenplay, infuses the early going with a matter-of-factness that helps keep the characters believable and grounded even in their more outlandish moments. Eyal’s unfriendliness towards the neighbors (Sharon Alexander, Carmit Mesilati-Kaplan), who he feels haven’t supported him and his wife during their son’s long period of illness, leads him to be comically rude to them when they show up when shiva’s practically over. But the combination of what he’s been through plus the fact he seems to be a very impulsive and direct character make his rash words and actions credible.

There are several comic set-pieces in the film, the first being Eyal’s desperate attempt to stuff some of the weed into the rolling paper he’s miraculously managed to buy after the stores have closed. This apparently simple undertaking becomes a Sisyphean task in a montage of close-ups that play the rapid succession of Eyal’s botched efforts for laughs (or rather, chuckles, as the film is less of a laugh-out-loud comedy than a character-driven dramedy). But Polonsky’s montage sequence has a narrative function as well, as Eyal’s stubborn desire to smoke his son’s pot — “I’ve inherited it,” he says wryly — leads him to reconnect with the neighbors’ son, Zooler (Tomer Kapon), a laid-back stoner type who works as a sushi delivery guy even though he’s almost 30. As Zooler helps out his neighbor, the two men start to bond, even though Zooler’s the type to bring up memories or ask questions about Ronnie, while Eyal says he only wants to forget.

Polonsky is very good at suggesting what his characters are thinking at any given moment, even if they might be saying quite the contrary. Eyal, for example, doesn’t seem to want to forget at all, as he’ll make another trip to the hospice to search for that blanket, in an echo of what he’s presumably done all the weeks and months that Ronnie was hospitalized. If Vicky wants to go back to normal by taking up her job again, Eyal’s “normal” seems to be the months before Ronnie’s death, no doubt filled with countless hospital visits. Getting over someone’s death, the film seems to imply, also necessitates getting over the long period of illness (and all its associated habits) before it, as life hadn’t been “normal” for a long time.

Unfortunately, Vicky’s struggle with getting her life back on the rails isn’t given as much attention as Eyal’s developing relationship with Zooler. This is partly because she doesn’t really have anyone to talk or react to and partly because the film sticks closer to Eyal’s point of view in especially the second half, when he rushes back to the cemetery because he’s forgotten to reserve the two plots next to Ronnie for himself and his spouse. This interlude is the most unexpectedly poetic and moving, as Eyal, Zooler and a little girl from the hospice (Alona Schauloff) attend the funeral of the unknown woman who’ll be buried next to Ronnie because Eyal missed the deadline.

Through seeing the funeral rites for a stranger, Eyal finally manages to detach himself from his own grief, and it makes him realize that though a death in the family is very personal and painful, in the overall scheme of human existence it’s par for the course. Vicky’s epiphany isn’t that great, even if her insistence to keep a dental appointment shows that she realizes that regular life doesn’t stop just because someone died. Some uncharacteristically hyperactive camerawork at the dentist’s office detracts from Vicky’s intimate and small emotional breakthrough, however, even if generally speaking, Moshe Mishali’s widescreen cinematography is calm and gorgeously balanced in its use of asymmetrical compositions. Tamar Aphek's score, a combination of modern percussion and more classical rhythms, musically evokes the imbalance and longing for a return to normal that the characters are feeling and working on.

Avivi and Dodina have the kind of weary chemistry that make them believable as a middle-aged couple on divergent paths to acceptance after their son’s death. Kapon, who looks like a Mediterranean Ryan Gosling with a premature dad bod, complements Avivi in a seemingly simple but actually very tricky performance in which he has to bring a new energy to the neighbors’ household whilst portraying a stoner. His love of air-guitar contests is certainly a great help, as is his playful rapport with the little girl from the hospice, who recruits him and Eyal to perform an “air operation” on her terminally ill mother. Initially playing like a quirky, Sundance-y gimmick meant to get audiences crying, the scene ends up being quietly affecting as Polonsky’s camera lingers on Eyal’s face as he struggles to keep it together while memories of his son’s time in the hospice are no doubt flooding back. It’s in scenes such as these that it is clear that this newbie director has got a lot of talent.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics' Week)
Production company: Black Sheep Film Productions
Cast: Shai Avivi, Evgenia Dodina, Tomer Kapon, Alona Shauloff, Uri Gavriel, Sharon Alexander, Carmit Mesilati-Kaplan
Writer-director: Asaph Polonsky
Producers: Saar Yogev, Noami Levari
Director of photography: Moshe Mishali
Production designer: Yoav Sinai
Costume designer: Chen Oshri
Editor: Tali Halter Shenkar
Music: Tamar Aphek
Casting: Esther Kling
Sales: New Europe Film Sales

Not rated, 98 minutes