a younger man and older man sit around a coffee table. the younger one talks while the older one smoke a joint
Grieving father Eyal (right) smokes pot with friend Zooler (Courtesy/Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Shiva ends, then what? Grief-stricken comedy about the day after

Asaph Polonsky’s exceptional debut feature, “One Week and a Day,” springs from the fact that everyone deals with loss differently.

Bizarrely funny and acutely moving, the film depicts a middle-aged Israeli couple struggling with two related voids. Their grown son has succumbed after a long illness, and shiva — with its clamor and company — has just ended.

“Shiva is a buffer where you have this week when everyone is there to help you,” Polonsky said of the seven-day mourning period. “Part of [its purpose] is to delay the healing process.”

“One Week and a Day,” which screened at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and Mill Valley Film Festival last year, opens Friday, May 12 at the Opera Plaza Cinemas in San Francisco.

The film begins on the jarringly quiet morning after, when the bereaved husband and wife tentatively set about reconnecting with their routines.

“Everyone leaves and you have to grieve, and move on, on your own,” the filmmaker said by phone from Los Angeles. “That’s really when the healing process starts. You’re going to deal with it your whole life, but that one day is when reality kicks in.”

Eyal (played by popular TV sketch comedy veteran Shai Avivi) vents his pain through directing passive-aggressive one-liners at acquaintances and strangers before regressing to even more adolescent behavior. Vicky (acclaimed Russian-born dramatic actress Evgenia Dodina) hides her emotions behind a stone face and brusque interactions.

What sets “One Week and a Day” apart is Polonsky’s ability to generate off-the-wall laughs from Eyal and Vicky’s absurd-yet-plausible behavior and their surreal circumstances.

“You have to play it straight,” Polonsky explains. “The characters don’t know they’re in a comedy or a funny situation. It’s extremely dramatic for them. So we played it as a drama, and the humor came from that. The only place we pushed it was in the editing, if a cut could make it funnier or the sound design could make it funnier.”

Some of the unexpected laughs, as well as the dramatic tension, stem from Avivi and Dodina’s different acting styles and unspoken chemistry.

“Israel is a very small country and a very small industry, and if actors haven’t worked with each other they know each other,” Polonsky says. “But not in this case. So we had them meet and spend time together. We gave them money and they went on a couple of ‘dates.’ ”

Avivi is quite good at eliciting laughs on his own, notably in a scene where Eyal comes into possession of a hospice patient’s marijuana stash — and, later in the day, partakes of his windfall.

Polonsky, 33, was born in Washington, D.C., to Israeli parents. His father finished his studies when Polonsky was 8, and the family moved back to Israel.

Asaph Polonsky
Asaph Polonsky

The filmmaker returned to the States in 2010 to attend the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. He worked on “One Week and a Day” the entire time and flew back to Israel on New Year’s Eve 2014 to begin pre-production. Polonsky, who is married and has no children, spent the next year and a chunk of 2016 making and finishing the movie in Israel before premiering it at the Cannes Film Festival.

The film’s uniquely quirky mix of comedy and drama reflects Polonsky’s humanistic view of the world. In one especially rich sequence, Vicky’s tardy arrival for a teeth-cleaning appointment triggers the office manager’s frustration and Vicky’s stubbornness, followed by the hygienist’s curt indifference.

“[Vicky and Eyal] are dealing with the toughest time of their life, while everyone else is living their life,” Polonsky says. “Everyone is having their own problems, and when these things collide, that’s when a conflict arises.”

Some key plot points came from Polonsky’s experience, filtered through his perspective. He recalls the unease at the shiva of a friend’s girlfriend, who died after a two-year illness.

“Someone broke the silence by asking if she had any medicinal weed left,” Polonsky recounts. “Something stayed with me about this moment — the awkwardness.”

At a crucial juncture later in “One Week and a Day,” Eyal finds himself at a funeral listening to an eloquent eulogy. It is, in fact, an edited version of the eulogy that Polonsky’s father delivered for his sister (Polonsky’s aunt) several years ago.

Because Vicky and Eyal’s son died of natural causes, rather than in a war or a terrorist attack, “One Week and a Day” has a universal quality. But the characters — impulsive, blunt, smart, caustic — are unmistakably Israeli and, therefore, so is this fine little film.

“One Week and a Day” opens Friday, May 12 at Opera Plaza Cinemas in San Francisco. (In Hebrew with English subtitles, 97 minutes, unrated)

fox-michael
Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.