This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com
Rafael Belvedere (Ricardo Darin) is no stranger to stress. Since his father retired he’s ran the family restaurant, chasing suppliers, hounding banks and generally engaging in a never ending struggle to keep everything afloat. He’s divorced from his argumentative wife, rarely sees his young daughter Vicky (Gimena Nobile), and his mother Norma (Norma Aleandro) is afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. Given his hectic life it’s unsurprising that he has trouble finding time to visit her in the nursing home, but that doesn’t stop him feeling a tad guilty when his father Nino (Hector Alterio) reminds him that as it’s Norma’s birthday, it might be an idea to visit.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Rafael is in a nice, stable relationship with a younger woman, Naty (a delectable Natalia Verbeke). His estranged childhood friend Juan Carlos (Eduardo Blanco) shows up out of the blue for a drink. Life being as it is though, this cannot continue. Rafael suffers a heart attack, landing him a two week stint in ICU.
On his discharge, he wants to reassess his life and how he’s living it. Deciding he cannot continue with the stress of being a small company against indifferent corporate monoliths, he sells out to one of them. This causes some stress in his relationship with Naty. She doesn’t seem too sure of the change in him, perhaps thinking he’s no longer the dynamic go-getter she fell in love with. Coupled with her father’s offer to pay for her to return to university, she’s putting together a compelling case for leaving.
Nino is a little upset about seeing the old family business vanish, but he also wants to start a new phase in his life. Still madly in love with Norma after 44 years of marriage, he wants to use his savings to provide the all-singing, all-dancing white wedding that he had denied them many years ago. With Norma’s mental state tragically fading he still only wants to make her happy, just as he always has. Rafael thinks this is madness, urging Nino to go with his previous dreams of a trip to Italy.
Really, this ought to be all the film was about. There’s a raft of sub-plots which may well flesh out the character to a fully rounded one, with numerous relationships and the interplay between them affecting others, but there’s a limit to how much can be squeezed into a film without some of them being woefully under explored and seeming a little redundant. Had the script stuck more closely to Rafael’s attempts to understand the time-defying love of his father for his mother, and how that applies to his current situation. To its credit it largely does, but some of the digressions seem to do little to advance anything.
The main digression, but ultimately one of the more enjoyable scenes, come from Juan Carlos’ admission that he may be falling in love with Naty. Rafael dismisses this as Juan’s attempt to replace his tragically deceased family with his own. Not a scenario rife with comic potential, but the discussion takes place on the set of a movie Juan is an extra in, allowing the director a great excuse to have a ruckus created in the background of the seemingly pompous melodrama that Juan is now taking an unexpected centre stage in. It’s a funny scene, but all it results in is Juan dropping off the films radar for a while before being re-introduced with a mutual apology, rendering it a little pointless. Perhaps being enjoyable is enough in itself.
There are other digressions, notably involving Rafael’s ex-wife and her new boyfriend that have a similar bolted-on feeling, raising some questions but never fully answering them. While this affords a great depth of character it tends to do so at the expense of the pacing, and it can seem overly slow going at points. I believe it would have benefited from some trimming of the less important sub-plots, and a slightly less meandering path as Rafael works through where he wants to be going in his life and who he wants to be spending it with.
As he comes to realise the power of his parents love, and resolves to help Nino bring a smile to Norma’s face before she forgets them completely. It’s a difficult subject to deal with at any time, let alone in a fairly light-hearted comedy drama, but it never feels exploitative here. The love and respect shown for Norma is palpable, even despite the changes in character and mood swings brought on by the disease. The trials Nino would have been put though are heartbreaking, but it does give the film a powerful feel good moment at their eventual ceremony. Playing any king of mentally handicapped character is always a potential minefield, but Norma Aleandro gives a great performance, showing enough hints of how she used to be before the onset of the disease to drive home the tragedy of this horrible, horrible illness.
It’s a film full of great performances. Everyone is superb in their roles, but special props to Hector Alterio as Nino and Ricardo Darin as Rafael. They provide a dynamic pairing that are utterly convincing as father and son, and both show great range and ability. Eduardo Blanco as Juan Carlos is largely present for comic relief despite having a pretty upsetting back-story himself, and he provides a more than capable performance, although as stated before if his role was removed entirely it would hardly have affected the final outcome of the film.
It’s these minor niggles that stop it being a classic, but it’s certainly a very, very good film. It’s more drama than comedy, so don’t expect a laugh riot, but it remains gently amusing throughout. It’s sharply written, providing some good one-liners and barbed comments, and it’s to its credit that it never becomes a depressing experience. It could easily have been a little too bleak to be enjoyable, but the balance is spot-on. It may perhaps be too nice for want of a better word, for those in search of gritty realism or a Leaving Las Vegas style grim-a-thon, but it’s not intending to be that. For one of the few times in life I can say this actually is a genuinely heart-warming tale, having seen a great many described by marketing execs who easily confuse the phrase with ‘vomit-inducing’.
I liked this a lot, runtime niggles aside. Not a film that pushes back any cinematic boundaries, or one telling a tale we haven’t seen many time before, but well executed nonetheless.