My handy-dandy SIFF Guide described Never on a Sunday as a "black comedy" ala Weekend at Bernie's and its protagonist as a sort of Mexican Judd Nelson -- neither description being particularly enthralling. Fortunately, in spite of being overlong, the film has considerably more depth and emotion than Weekend at Bernie's (a fun film, to be sure, but far from the realm of the cinematic masterpiece), and lead actor Humberto Busto (Amores Perros), in spite of the resemblance of his profile, hairstyle, and brooding-teen vibe to the Breakfast Club-era Nelson, brings a surprising depth to a role that could have been very one-dimensional.
When we first meet Carlos (Busto), he is sitting at the bedside of his dying Uncle Julio as he gasps his last breath. Unfortunately for Carlos and his family, Uncle Julio decided to die on a Sunday, and apparently in Mexico that's a bad thing to do. The bereaved family can't get anyone from the coroner's office to come over to issue a death certificate, and without the paperwork they can't get a funeral home to come and get the body. They finally find one funeral home that will pick the body up, and Carlos is sent by his father to accompany his uncle's body, to witness the cremation and handle the paperwork. Carlos, in the latest of what we soon learn is a never-ending cycle of foolish errors, doesn't stay to actually witness the cremation -- and forgets the tax receipt for his overbearing father. No big deal, he figures. A few days later, Uncle Julio is properly interred -- until his body shows up in anatomy class at the medical school, and Carlos' friend is supposed to dissect him. The friend tells Carlos where his uncle is, and thus begins a series of misadventures as Carlos retrieves his beloved uncle's body, and then tries to find a way to dispose of it before it ... well, you know.
This is material that could be turned into a cheesy teen comedy, or a really funny black comedy, and the film does have elements of both, but director Daniel Gruener opts to keep the focus mainly on Carlos and how his uncle's death and his failure to properly dispose of the body of the only person who'd ever believed in him affect him. This gives this story more depth than you'd expect to find in a film about a dead body. There's a nice little subplot involving Ana (Maya Zapata) the long-suffering daughter of the sleazy funeral director, whose schoolmates sang "Happy Birthday" to her every year on the Day of the Dead. Hey, if you grew up living on top of a crematorium, you'd probably turn out a little odd yourself.
At two hours the film could with a little trimming around the midsection, where the plot drags a bit -- there are only so many places you can store a dead body in the heat of summer in Mexico, and we run through those options pretty quickly. Busto turns in an engaging performance, though; you can't help but like Carlos, bumbler though he is. He wants so badly not to screw up this one thing in his life, and the more he runs into obstacles in getting his uncle's body taken care of, the more desperate he grows to make something right of the situation. Busto does a nice job of conveying Carlos' heightening sense of fear and anxiety. Zapata is nicely quirky as Ana, with a kind of Beetlejuice-era Winona Ryder vibe going for her. The film isn't generally laugh-out-loud funny, though it has some funny moments, especially toward the end, and it mostly kept me engaged throughout. Overall, Never on a Sunday is mostly sad and bittersweet, tinged with just enough humor to keep it from being maudlin, and well worth catching at a film fest.