Giving Something Back
or her son to remember, a mother needed to forget,” is how a mock slogan for The Son of the Bride might read. That, essentially, is the story of this sentimental film, just released on video, from Argentinean director Juan José Campanella about an overworked businessman whose mother has Alzheimer’s disease.
In a plot familiar from umpteen Hollywood movies, Rafael Belvedere (Ricardo Darín, recently seen by North American audiences as a con man in Nine Queens) is a restaurateur with no time for his personal life and a cell phone that’s always ringing with some new crisis. His hectic lifestyle is a recipe for midlife crisis, and we know that his old-fashioned, sentimental father and ailing mother will be a part of it when it comes.
The film, a Best Foreign Language Oscar nominee in 2001, translates very well to the video format. It is typical Oscar material, but it succeeds outside Academy parameters for a couple of reasons: it offers strong, engaging performances from all of its leads, and it leavens the hokiness of its storyline with some broad humor and fast pacing.
From the opening shots—juxtaposing Rafael’s eyes as a young boy, gazing with adoration at his mother, with his eyes as a man, baggy as he watches television on another sleepless night—we know that something has gone wrong since Rafael’s boyhood. We know he’s due for a fall from yuppie grace as we see him barking into his phone, cursing over missing food orders at his restaurant, and refusing to spring for marscapone for the tiramisu, telling the chef to use cream cheese instead. He is unresponsive to his adoring younger girlfriend, late to pick up his daughter for the weekend, and hasn’t visited his mother in the senior home for an entire year.
Darín often plays a porteño, an Argentine climber or arriviste, and Rafael is certainly such a hustler. Yet, with his expressive face, Darín makes this foul-mouthed restaurateur sympathetic. His performance is fully matched by that of Héctor Alterio, bringing a salty vitality to his role as Rafael’s father Nino. The film sets up the generational divide between father and son early on, as Rafael explains that harder times are making it difficult for him to keep his father’s restaurant business afloat. While Nino reminisces about the older, simpler days when he opened the restaurant, Rafael confesses that he is considering selling it to a corporation.
While Rafael is preoccupied with these concerns, Nino reveals that his dream is to “give something back” to his wife of 44 years. She sacrificed the opportunity to have a real wedding, and he would like to give her one now, even though she is only half-aware of the people and reality around her. Rafael, initially skeptical of Nino’s plan, encourages Nino instead to take his long-dreamed-of trip to Italy, the family’s old country. But Nino holds fast to his dream.
Starting with his visit to his mother, (played by the luminous Norma Aleandro) Raphael begins to slow his pace and reassess his priorities. From the moment he steps into the seniors’ home, he is literally forced to shift gears, as he leaves his own routine of phone calls and deadlines for the timeless life of someone with Alzheimer’s.
Other elements also conspire to make Rafael warm to Nino’s plan. His goofy childhood buddy Juan Carlos (Eduardo Blanco) shows up, his oddball humor clearly startling Rafael out of his stress; his girlfriend Naty (Natalia Verbeke), begins to drift; and his daughter Vicky (Gimena Nóbile) seems uninterested in him. Rafael accepts his father’s idea that serves, predictably, as step one to straightening out his own relationships and work life. The film suffers from a serious case of schmaltz, but its syrupiness is part and parcel of its plot.
Taken on its own sentimental terms, however, the film does three things. First, it affirms the institution of marriage—and of a loving marriage. “He’s like Fred Astaire,” Rafael comments wistfully at one moment, watching his father talking to his mother. “He makes it look so easy.” The moment reveals the film’s most palatable emotional truth: that loving and being married, things that came so easily to a father, have not come as easily to his son.
Second, the film slides right past the messy realities of Alzheimer’s. The worst that we see Norma do at the wedding is to tell her son, “Let’s go home,” as she walks down the aisle. At best, though, she’s only half-aware of what’s going on, making dad’s plan appear a selfish fantasy à la Muriel’s Wedding. Third and last, The Son of the Bride manages to be an extremely retrograde, conservative film. Although many a Hollywood movie ends up with a couple or two happily paired off, “Son of the Bride” sheds its “Hollywoodness” by the end. It is a paean to a bygone time and to an older generation in which no one “gets on with it,” joins a support group, or finds a new love. The characters choose the relationships they already have, and with them, they choose stasis and nostalgia.
Not only does Dad skip that trip to Italy and instead re-marry his ailing wife, but also, son Rafael learns from Dad’s example. So that the men can learn something, Norma becomes a symbol of a simpler, better past. Dad eulogizes her, calling her an “angel,” and Rafael cries on her shoulder, receiving a smile and caress as if they are a benediction. Uniting with Norma, whose best days are behind her, Nino and Rafael reaffirm their allegiance to their past. Uniting with someone who does not even recall that past, the two men may be choosing total oblivion.