The searing intensity of “To Take a Wife” turns into overly diffused heat in Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz’s follow-up family drama “The Seven Days.” Revisiting the unhappy couple from the first extraordinary feature, the sibling helmers expand the characters and open a Pandora’s Box of festering resentment and jealousies, creating so many highs and lows that the dramatic arc becomes a repetitive series of peaks and valleys. There’s still power in this story of a traditional Jewish family observing the requisite seven days of mourning, but few concentrated emotional returns. Finding auds outside Jewish fests will be an uphill battle.
In a visually significant move designed to encompass a fuller range of family dynamics, pic is shot in widescreen, opening on a scene of deep grieving by the graveside of a beloved brother. Since this is set in the Israeli town of Kiryat Yam during the 1991 Gulf War, mourners carry gas masks: between the high-pitched level of hysteria at the open tomb and the incongruous site of the black-clad figures hastily donning their masks, auds can be expected to question whether to laugh or cry.
“Shiva,” the required seven-day period of mourning during which immediate family members remain together indoors, is held in the home of the deceased’s widow Ilana (Keren Mor). The six remaining brothers and two sisters of the Ohaion family, along with matriarch Hanina (Sulika Kadosh) and assorted in-laws crowd in for what’s to become a long week of recriminations and reopened wounds, all set inside the house except for the bookmarking scenes at the grave.
Sister Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz), the main focus of “To Take a Wife,” is thankfully separated from husband Eliyahu (Simon Abkarian), though he’s hanging around hoping to get her back. Brother Haim (Moshe Ivgy) is facing financial ruin thanks to a collapsed factory business: despite employing his siblings and paying them overly generous salaries, no one is willing to make the necessary sacrifices to help.
All the male members enforce a strict adherence to orthodox Moroccan Jewish traditions of mourning that has everything to do with controlling the womenfolk and nothing to do with collectively assuaging their grief. As the days pass by with little to do but pray and eat, alliances keep shifting and pent-up tensions come to a boil as the imprisoning reality of communal family life takes its toll.
Anyone who grew up within a large, ostensibly close-knit family will recognize types here, from the busybody yenta Therese (Ruby Shoval) and her spinster sister Evelyne (Evelin Hagoel) rarely seen out of the kitchen, to arrogant yet cowardly brother Jacques (Rafi Amzaleg) and his profoundly unhappy wife Lili (Yael Abecassis). Riding a wave of success on Haim’s coattails, they all grasp onto the trappings of middle-class life with selfish determination, revealing the tenuousness of blood ties when money is involved.
Unquestionably the helmers are intimately familiar with these dynamics, but their script’s structure gives equal time to everyone, forcing each episode to compete. Still, a few scenes both quiet and explosive stand out: a meeting between the brothers chillingly reveals their cowardly ends, while a blow-up between Viviane and her bitter sister Simone (Hanna Azoulay Hasfari) is an exhaustive emotional knockout. Calibrating the rest isn’t so successful, and a much-needed outburst of laughter when they’ve all bedded down for the night in one room only goes halfway in providing the needed cathartic break.
Unsurprisingly, thesping is flawless, and the ensemble cast, largely made up of top Israeli performers, work together seamlessly. Ronit Elkabetz (“The Band’s Visit”) of course is a highlight, but so too are the seething Azoulay Hasfari and her more tempered but equally impressive male colleagues — it’s hard to single out one performer when they seem to share completely in this family’s pain and culpability.
Pairing again with d.p. Yaron Scharf, the Elkabetzes once more prove their controlled and sophisticated eye, here taking full advantage of scope lensing that favors wide-angle shots to alternately isolate family members and reinforce their cohesion. The camera largely remains static (contributing to the sense of a family unable to budge), and scenes with everyone gathered together in an almost unnaturally close grouping resemble a tightly packed Greek chorus acting out their own tragedy. The additional anxiety of the war is treated as a matter-of-fact aside while adding an extra dimension of tension.