Arts & Culture

Is Alejandro Springall the Mexican Woody Allen?

Mexican director Alejandro Springall describes My Mexican Shivah as a film "about existence" and "acquiring the tools to continue living and re-organizing the family after a loss." While it does deal with such serious themes, don’t let the gravity fool … Read More

By / August 26, 2008

Mexican director Alejandro Springall describes My Mexican Shivah as a film "about existence" and "acquiring the tools to continue living and re-organizing the family after a loss." While it does deal with such serious themes, don’t let the gravity fool you: My Mexican Shivah is as funny as it is thoughtful, and as sexy as it is poignant. Set in a Jewish neighborhood in Mexico City, the seriocomic drama tells the story of a Mexican Jewish family dealing with the sudden loss of their "beloved paterfamilias", Moishe. The film, which debuted at the New York Jewish Film Festival, opens on Friday, August 29 at New York’s Quad Cinema (13 street b/5th and 6th ave), and can be seen on Video On Demand from your local cable provider beginning August 29, 2008.

I loved everything about this film: The characters were very real and well acted, the story was complex but relatable, and the whole thing was visually engaging. I especially appreciated the way that shivah rituals were portrayed without presenting them or the characters involved in them as clichés–often the case with religious themes in film. Tell me about how you accomplished this. Making this film was a very personal journey, in the sense that for the first time I relied and deeply trusted my intuition, making a big effort in rejecting everything that felt too rational, too stylish or that drifted away from naturalism. Being profoundly interested in human nature, I also rejected any scene or performance where emotions felt deduced because when emotions truly irrupt then you believe the characters and get engaged in their personal disasters and successes.

This film is about existence, about acquiring the tools to continue living and re-organizing the family after a loss. I wanted the audience to live a shivah and family kvetching, because it is in the bosom of the family where we learn how to feel and also where we can take the masks off and be exactly who we are. Nobody knows us better than our own families, and sitting shivah for seven days is a perfect setup to develop a whole range of emotions, the dark and the bright side of everyone.

Each character, major and minor, had a life of their own, and the arcs of each would continue developing even as the ends credits start to roll. To achieve this, the only tools I had were the actors, and even though it was not mandatory that they were Jewish, I was very keen in looking for Jewish actors to interpret the Jewish characters in the film, so I cast a mixture of professional and non professional actors, and rehearsed with them for 6 weeks because I didn’t want to keep on developing characters on the set, I wanted all the actors to come in with their characters already in the skin, incarnated. I only had little time to shoot this movie, and I needed all the time to create a life that was plausible, and get it on film.

It was a bit frustrating for the DP, Art Director, Costume Designer, etc., because I always told them that this film only relied on the actors and therefore their expertise had to be blended in a way that it didn’t call the attention or distract the obsessions and pulsations of the characters. Contrary to most films that want to show great production values–a Grand Guignol–we worked the other way around, where less is more, and the more simple the scenes looked, the deeper and complex the different readings.
The two "divine accountants" who attend the shivah–offering commentary as they attempt to calculate whether an angel of light or darkness will accompany Moishe’s soul on its journey–remind me of a Greek chorus. Meanwhile, the Chevreman reminds me of a Shakespearian fool. Tell me about the inspiration behind these and the other symbols you used. The two fascinating old Hassids are a metaphor of tradition. As you can see, our family in the film is not religious or observant, but tradition is always present. Galia, the beautiful young woman in the film, rejects religion. She is a modern woman, she doesn’t believe that a sacred world exists anymore, but eventually she is the only one who can see the "divine accountants" and realizes the wisdom behind rituals.

I love rituals, especially Jewish rituals, because even though they remit us to an archaic world where time has frozen, it is still very clear how efficient and effective they are. The film is full of subtle details, and I know that you cannot get them all on the first viewing, because even though the film looks very simple, it is very baroque, and a lot of things are in subtext or happening behind the scenes. There are details like Moishe’s book about his town, Vielun, which I chose because it was the first town bombarded the first day of WWII, and it was like a little memorial to the Shoah.

Finally, all of our characters are living an extraordinary moment except for the Chevreman, whose job is to organize shivahs, so that character is different because that is his ordinary world. At one point, when the Catholic housekeeper is preparing a platter of hors d’oeuvres, she unknowingly puts meat and cheese on the same plate. Esther, Moishe’s bereaved daughter, throws the plate of food in the garbage, angrily explaining that it’s a sin to mix milk and meat. The housekeeper’s retort is that it’s also a sin to waste food, to which Esther replies, "I guess everything ends up being a sin." It’s a striking, disquieting moment, and it lingered with me. What are we to take from this statement? To me that moment raises a theological question, in the sense that there are so many rules and contradictions that it is practically impossible to comply with them and please G-d. Another moment like that is when Rubinstein will not be part of the minyan and therefore prayer cannot be said, and the Chevreman asks the men in the room: What’s worse, add a gentile to complete the minyan, pray with nine, or not pray at all? Some of the characters are very concerned about the impact their shivah will have on Moishe’s soul, but ultimately it’s their own souls that they’re confronting and wrestling with. It’s almost as though Moishe’s death offers an opportunity of renaissance for those he’s left behind. Absolutely, the film is about the living and the impact the life of the deceased had on them and their personal structures. Also, the shivah is a perfect setting to cry for everything you’ve lost inside you, what is dying about you. There’s a quote from a very good Mexican Jewish painter that I wrote on a large billboard and had on the set for everyone to see every day: "As time passes, we’re more our dead than our living. Something dies in us when our beloved pass away, that’s true; but it’s also true that they start living inside us in a way they never did in life. Maybe it’s because we can’t avoid them in their absence in the way we could when they were present." – Eduardo Cohen Did you learn anything about shivah rituals through the making of this movie that you hadn’t known before? Oh, yes, I had rabbinical counsel all the time. This movie is also about the wisdom of sitting shivah and its purifying effect, and even though I’ve been in many shivahs, I am no expert, so I did my homework and learned every aspect and precept.

I told the entire team that we are doing the Barry Lyndon of shivahs and that we had to follow everything by the book. On the set I had a huge library next to my chair that included Maimonides, the Shulchan Aruch, etc. The tough side was to choose the minimum information needed to provide the audience so they could follow the story and the ritual. Also, I made the film for all audiences and had to be as universal as possible knowing that according to their backgrounds, audiences would get different things and understand humor in different ways. For example, if you are a Mexican Jew from Ashkenazi origin, you would get certain subtleties, if you are a Mexican Jew, you’d get other things, if you’re Mexican, some other things, if you’re Jewish but not Mexican some other things, if you’re not Jewish nor Mexican you still had to understand, laugh and enjoy this dramatic comedy… I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen images–even fictitious–of the rituals of rechitsa and tahara (bathing and purifying a corpse before burial). Tell me about the cracked egg. The head of the Chevra Kaddisha is a good friend and I asked him to allow to me be present in several taharas so I could learn the entire process and be faithful to the ritual on the screen. I helped wash 3 bodies, and that’s where I learned that the egg has a very mystical symbolism. It is used because on the one hand, the egg is round and represents the cycle of life, but on the other hand, egg is one the substances that lasts longer throughout centuries, so covering the body with egg will allow the egg to get impregnated with the cells of the body and when the Messiah comes, he’ll be able to identify you when the dead rise. There are many other things that are done and I didn’t show, such as the tweeds you put next to the hands of the corpse to symbolize "crutches" you’ll need when you rise from the dead. Which angels do you think will accompany your soul when you die? I think the battle will last forever, but I certainly think that the only one who can judge a person’s life without mistake is G-d, that’s why I was careful at the end not judge Moishe’s life, because each viewer creates a different Moishe in their heads and hearts according to their own set of values. Where and when will Jewcy readers be able to see My Mexican Shivah? My Mexican Shivah opens on Friday, August 29 at the Quad Cinema in New York (13 street b/5th and 6th ave), and also can be seen on Video On Demand from your local cable provider starting August 29, 2008. What’s next for you? I am preparing a romantic black comedy set in Mexico City to be shot in the winter. I’m also finishing a script in English–a story for kids where the hero is an 8-year-old girl who saves the constellations and the Zodiac signs from a witch who’s stealing them.