Son of the Bride (El Hijo de la Novia) (Argentina 2001) ***1/2
Directed by Juan Jose Campanella. Written by Fernando Castets and Mr.Campanella. Photography, Daniel Shulman, Editing, Camilo Antolini. Art direction, Mercedes Alfonsin. Music by Angel Illaramendi. Additional music, Ivan Wyszograd. Produced by Adrian Sur, Fernando Blanco, Pablo Bossi. Jorge Estrada Mora, Gerardo Herrero, Mariela Besuievsky. Cast:Ricardo Darin (Rafael Belvedere), Hector Alterio (Nino Belvedere ), Norma Aleandro (Norma Belvedere), Eduardo Blanco (Juan Carlos), Natalia Verbeke (Nati), Gimena Nobile (Vicky), Claudia Fontan (Sandra), David Masajnik (Nacho), Atilio Pozzobon (Francesco), Salo Pasik (Daniel). An Argentina-Spain co-production. A Sony Pictures Classics release. In Spanish with subtitles. 124 minutes. R (language).
On two occasions in this film two major characters, the protagonist and a small-time movie actor, state, in passing "I don't watch Argentinian films." Rather recently, I heard more or less the same, one by a cultivated, film connoisseur Argentine in my class, another, in an e-mail from Buenos Aires sent by a savvy film-buff.
It's sad. Argentina, with a population of over 34 million, has not been a major player in the domain of film. It has had difficulties with its national cinema, troubles that parallel the long succession of political and financial upheavals of the nation. Even so, within the ups and downs of the country's cinema there have been some excellent movies. Notably, filmmaker Leopoldo Torre Nilsson (1924-1978) was a household name within international cinema circles. In more recent times, filmmakers such as Antin, Sorin, Agresti, Ayala, Solanas, Subiela, plus others have produced remarkable works, all with superior performances.
What motivates the negative statements about the national cinema must be the number of second-rate commercial Argentine movies, plus the many "foreign" films from Hollywood and across the world. The country has a great many educated people who are familiar with dozens of imported films. Those elements distract from, or overshadow, the best Argentine movies. But are slowly improving. I recently reviewed the excellent "Nine Queens"(2000), a first feature that won several prizes internationally. Now comes "Son of the Bride," with its own many awards plus its Oscar 2002 nomination as Best Foreign Language Film. Things are looking up.
"Son" centers on Rafael Belvedere (Ricardo Darin,) one of the many Argentinians of Italian extraction. He is 42, divorced from a handsome woman. He is also the doting father of their smart, charming daughter.
Rafael's mother Norma (Norma Aleandro, of "The Official Story" fame) had high hopes for Rafael. But when he didn't make it to Law School, she was so disappointed that alienation set in between mother and son.
When his father Nino (Hector Alterio) retired as the justly proud owner of a fine Buenos Aires restaurant, Rafael took over. He accomplished a great deal, but could not be appreciated by his mother. Norma, by then severely stricken with Alzheimer's disease, lived --in a fog-at a retirement home and could not recognize people, including her family. (Her performance is a tour de force.)
Then comes another financial crisis in Argentina. "Which crisis? When don't we have one?" says Rafael. But now the times are even harder. He has major debts, maneuvers among banks, must even stoop to cheaper ingredients for his dishes, yet refuses to be bought out by a consortium. In the smooth, natural progression of the movie, references to the mess the country is in (e.g bribing a traffic cop, the banknote turning out to be counterfeit, etc.) are touched upon with a light hand.
Even though Rafael has a gorgeous, loving girlfriend-- the much younger University student Nati (Natalia Verbeke) --problems with her are looming.
To top it all, Nino, his wonderfully jaunty father, has come up with an odd notion. He had married Norma over 44 years ago and still adores her. Theirs had been a civil wedding. Now, to reinforce this marriage he wants to re-wed Norma in a religious ceremony. It may sound crazy, but it is unquestionably touching.
"The unexpected always happens" once wrote a famous French author. With problems escalating, Rafael gets a small heart attack, recovers, yet has to re-evaluate and reconsider his life....
I've said too much already but I will state that this film is captivating, tops in all departments and details. It is about real people, and it keeps you genuinely involved. That's a rarity in movies of any nationlity.
This picture is surprisingly original as it follows common situations. It is talky-interestingly so-yet fast-moving, especially as Rafael's cell phone becomes almost a character.
The human characters feel, sound, look authentic. Without a single exception all are believable, complex yet natural, decent, and, save for Norma, lucid. Additionally, even when bad things happen, the level of humor is high. Better yet, it stems naturally from the characters and the situations. When, for instance, a childhood friend of Rafael's reappears unexpectedly, and funnily. He is now an actor of sorts in movies.
After he resurfaces in Rafael's life, his initially small part in the picture (the one we are watching) keeps growing. It becomes unexpectedly and organically integrated into the whole. Note, too, how his small part as an extra in a movie being shot, is a small, gentle dig at commercial film-making.
Even better than better, there is a strong feeling of intimacy as the camera eavesdrops, but not voyeuristically. The photography, editing and soundtrack are all unpretentiously first-rate. The dialogue--nicely rendered by good subtitles--should appeal, qua language, to audiences who know Spanish. (I must add that this is not a given. As Latin American Spanish varies from nation to nation, there are ethnic chauvinisms which affect opinions. Personally, I like the Argentine melodious sing-song and its pronunciations.)
The avoidance of cheap tricks artificial sentimentality enhances everything. All the performances are exemplary. The film's several prizes are justified.
WARNING. As the long end-credits appear on the screen, please stay put. Wait a few moments for a gag to occur before you leave your seats.