Son of the Bride (El Hijo de la Novia)

Son of the Bride, written by Fernando Castets and Juan José Campanella, who also directed, is an utterly captivating little Argentine/Spanish co-production. Set in present day Buenos Aires, it tells the story of Rafael Belvedere (Ricardo Darín), a divorced, law-school drop-out of 42 who now runs, rather successfully, the up-scale restaurant his mother and father started when he was a child. His father Nino (Héctor Alterio) still drops in on the restaurant from time to time and makes his incomparable tiramasu, but his mother, Norma (Norma Aleandro), is now in a nursing home, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Rafael rarely visits her, but her presence looms large in his life. Her disappointment on his dropping out of law-school still rankles, and he is embittered by the fact that, now he has at last achieved some success in life, she is beyond feeling proud of him, as indeed she is beyond everything else.

Perhaps the film’s greatest achievement is the sense it is able to convey to us of what an impressive woman Señora Belvedere once was while showing her only in the ravages of old age. It does so partly by showing us the devotion to her of her son and husband, in their very different ways, and partly by the remarkable performance of Norma Aleandro as the ruin of something much grander. The nonsense phrase she keeps repeating in an ill-natured way, a propos of nothing, is “Look at this mess,” and we can well believe that here is a woman who has spent her life cleaning up messes with terrifying efficiency, though without much sympathy for those who caused them. In fact, the film begins with the young Rafael and a friend picking a fight with some older boys and his mother — represented only by her midriff — getting them out of it and chasing the boys away.

In their play, Rafael is Zorro, his friend the sidekick, Sgt Garcia. But that youthful sense of idealism, the desire to right wrongs and do noble deeds, has long since been forgotten. When we meet him 34 years later, his drive for efficiency and his impatience with employees and suppliers as he constantly barks down his cell-phone, calling everyone “moron,” is meant to give us the idea, I think, that he is his mother’s son, though he rarely goes to see her. He is obviously on bad terms with his ex-wife (Claudia Fontán) and his charming young daughter, Vicky (Gimena Nóbile), is afraid of him and unwilling to spend the court-mandated time with him that her father expects but does not enjoy.

One day a policeman comes into the restaurant and starts asking awkward questions. Rafael is prepared to bribe him, after the custom of the country, but the man takes off his sunglasses and reveals himself as his best friend from childhood, Juan Carlos (Eduardo Blanco) — an actor now who is playing a joke on him — with whom he has long since lost touch. Sergeant Garcia has come back into his life. Other things begin happening to Rafael at about the same time. A big corporation tries to buy him out of his little family restaurant, his father announces that, after 44 years of marriage, he wants to marry his mother in church, as she always wanted, he begins to have doubts about his relationship with his strikingly beautiful Spanish girlfriend, Nati (Natalia Verbeke), and he has a heart attack.

At this point, a number of uses might have been made of the Zorro motif, most notably given the Argentine setting and hints of corruption and bribery, a political one. In the press materials, Campanella and Castets claim that among their purposes was a commentary upon the economic and political troubles currently affecting Argentina, but unless they intend to make a connection between the public stage and the private life of their hero too subtle for me to grasp the movie turns in quite a different direction. Juan Carlos is no longer a sidekick but an adviser and counselor in the art of living. He, we learn, has lost his wife and daughter in a road accident and almost went to pieces before pulling himself together with a new appreciation for the preciousness of life. Obviously, his importance to a man who has lost wife and daughter in a less irrevocable sense is considerable.

The opportunity for cheap uplift is not quite ignored as the heart attack gives Rafael the sort of opportunity given to Juan Carlos by his bereavement — the opportunity to stand back and take stock of his life. But it is telling that his first impulse is a false one, namely to sell up and drop out and go off, alone, to Mexico and raise horses. Nati is devastated, realizing that there is no place for her in this scheme, but the ex-wife laughs at him. “What do you know about horses — except for Mr. Ed?” she asks the man whose only leisure-time activity up until this point appears to be watching TV. She is of course right to laugh. And it doesn’t take long for Rafael to realize too that the change he must make is not by running away but by running towards what he has already forsaken.

It is less the heart attack or his friend’s bereavement, however, than it is his father’s quixotic project of getting married in church, in which Rafael becomes reluctantly involved, that effects the necessary change in his life, his attitude, and his relationships with others, especially Nati and Vicky. There is a marvelous scene in which Rafael is arguing with a priest whose duty it has been to tell him that the church cannot sanction the marriage of his father and his mother because his mother, in her present condition, lacks one of the three conditions necessary for celebrating a marriage: discernment.

“Discernment!” exclaims Rafael. “Do you think every couple you marry has discernment? You should have asked me for discernment when I was in my 20s and mad with impatience to get married.” It makes a nice comparison between the kinds of madnesses that affect the beginnings and the ends of our lives, and it helps set the stage for the funny but moving scene of the wedding, in which Juan Carlos is given the job of impersonating a priest. Somehow the idea that either of those who had loved her most could, if only for a moment, penetrate the terrible fog of Norma’s declining age and make human contact once more comes to stand for much more — perhaps for every moment of awakening in our somnambulistic lives when, at last and unexpectedly, we see things as they really are.

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