Anyone who's experienced grief more as a wild boat ride on stormy seas than as the scheduled five stages from denial to acceptance, will feel intimately spoken to by One Week and a Day, a trenchant first feature from the young Israeli writer-director Asaph Polonsky. Equal parts bracing and beguiling, Polonsky's modestly budgeted movie addresses head-on the ungovernable confusion and raw emotion that attend one of the worst losses anyone can suffer — the death of a child. Yet it's a comedy, with the great French comedy director Jacques Tati grinning discreetly in the rear-view mirror.
The story unfolds in a quiet Israeli suburb over 24 hours after the shiva, seven days of Jewish ritual mourning, have ended. Everyone leaves, the casseroles stop coming, and everything goes quiet in the house of Eyal and Vicky Spivak (played deadpan by Israeli comedian Shai Avivi and Russian-Israeli actress Jenya Dodina) as they struggle to process the death of their grown son Ronnie, presumably from cancer.
Straining what is clearly an affectionate marriage, the two veer off on separate tracks of crazed non-coping. While Vicky doggedly cleaves to known routines, Eyal, his face frozen into a steely glare, runs amok. He invites some open-mouthed tots over for an aggressive round of ping-pong; fights a cab driver for a bag of cannabis lifted from the hospice where his son spent his last days; slugs his next-door neighbors for having loud sex repeatedly within earshot. Mostly he hangs out with the neighbors' son, Zooler (Tomer Kapon), a former friend of Ronnie's and a rumpled eternal child who knows how to roll a joint, play air guitar while jumping on the coffee table, and, apparently, not too much more. For the time being, Eyal too is a kid, minus the charm.
In the boilerplate grief narrative, the bereaved go a little nuts; navigate a way through; closure ensues. For a while One Week and a Day seems to operate within that well-worn rubric, but closure is a foreign country here, and the tone moves from elegiac and antic. The actors follow the first rule of Tati — play everything absolutely straight, but especially the comedy. Polonsky's pacing is as willfully choppy and disjointed as Eyal's inner life. Often the movie feels as if it's making itself up as it goes along, which is about right for a man who has completely lost his bearings. Resolutely non-psychological and spare with its sharply funny dialogue, One Week and a Day apprehends its walking wounded through their mood swings, their half-assed lurches into elaborate plans we can tell they'll never complete. The soundtrack, too, runs all over the musical map, giving voice to the couple's internal disarray and their desperate gambits to recover the meaning that has drained from their lives.
What's so funny, and so sad, about Eyal is that he has no idea how badly he's flailing. He goes about each cockamamie goose chase with grim-faced zeal, as if his life depended on it. Blinded by sorrow and rage, Eyal tries to bind his son inside himself, until at last he wakes up to the fact that he has quite literally lost the plot. It would ruin things if I told you how, but there comes at last a softening of sorts, and some inspiration from unexpected sources. In One Week and a Day it's the young who are instinctively wise about how to take sorrow on board and live within and around it. As for Eyal, a prolonged moment of grace at the grave of a total stranger shows him that collective mourning rituals may offer solace after all. To say nothing of a cleansing shower and a falafel shared with someone he loves.