As you might guess from the country of origin and the fact that you (probably) haven't heard of this movie, it's one of many I picked up on the cheap simply because it was there and reviews said it was good (it's hovering around 7.8 on IMDb). It's an Argentinian movie, which I must say probably makes it a first for me, at least insofar as that particular aspect. It's certainly not the first comedy/drama/romance around, but that's okay, because it's not really fair to hold any of those three very general categories against a movie.
What can I hold against this movie? I honestly don't know. I...wasn't expecting the drama? That isn't fair either though, to criticize a film because it isn't what I expect, and if you've read many of my past reviews, I'm usually pleased by such things. I'm definitely pleased here. This film was nominated that year for a Best Foreign Language Oscar (against Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain--a.k.a. Amélie--no less) and I can certainly see why.
The director is on Juan José Campanella, whose name is ringing a distant, foggy bell in my head, but I can't figure out what for based on the credits I see established for him. Perhaps it's a different Campanella--who can say? Still, I may have to keep an eye on him all the same.
Ricardo Darín is Rafael (Rafa to his father Nino, played by Héctor Alterio) Belvedere, owner of a family restaurant in Argentina, with an estranged ex-wife, a daughter of school age, and a beautiful girlfriend. He doesn't notice these things too much, as he spends 90% of his time on his cell phone arranging things with suppliers, banks and staff members to keep the restaurant running in top condition. At the beginning we see him as a child, playing Zorro to a group of older bullies, then coming in with his friend Juan Carlos (played as an adult by Eduardo Blanco) to his mother's protection and butter cookies. Then we see his new life of constant business and hurry, never having a moment for everything, all other activities interrupted by his ownership of that restaurant.
We find out that it was this business that broke his marriage apart--but unlike the usual explanation, simply that he is business-driven and so does not see the things around him, we find out that this drive is because he wanted desperately to make his mother proud of him, and took on the business to prove his worth to her--unfortunately, she was stricken with Alzheimer's just as he achieved this success, and so, while it may have done what he wanted, he (and we) will never know, and he has destroyed his marriage as a result, and loaded himself down with immense stress, hurting the new woman in his life as well.
But in counterpoint, we see his father, still devoted after 44 years to his wife Norma (Norma Aleandro) who stays in a nursing home to keep her safe and happy through her sickness, visiting her every single day, and deciding that what he needs to do is give her the dream he didn't so many years ago, a full-fledged ceremonial wedding. He is always upbeat and optimistic, we never see that melodramatic grimace when his wife doesn't remember him. He patiently smiles at her and stays and talks anyway, and he is determined to give her this, even as Rafael reminds him that she won't even know it has happened anyway.
It's absolutely wonderful overall; it's a study almost purely of Rafael, with the other characters revolving around our experience of him to highlight flaws, qualities, ignorances and every facet of his being. We see what his reflection is in the face of the undying love of his father, the harried self-affirmation of his ex-wife, the still youthful optimism of his girlfriend, and eventually the friend he defended as "Zorro," Juan Carlos, shows him what is that he does not see or appreciate, as we learn the life he has led in the intervening years.
The cast is fantastic. The light coming from Alterio when he speaks of or acts on his love for his wife is absolutely believable, and Darín rises easily to the challenge of showing us all the sides of Rafael that must be displayed for the movie to work. Natalia Verbeke shows us the valiant efforts of Nati, Rafael's girlfriend, to live out and gain what she wants, the strengths and the dependencies she shares with all people. Really just a very, very good movie.
Weird note: Alterio is like some odd combination of Eli Wallach and Hector Elizondo and recent Dennis Hopper in appearance. It's almost distracting, if it weren't for his performance. And Blanco? He reminds me of the frumpy, skinny nervous guy who had a bunch of small roles in movies in the late 90s mixed with a calmer Roberto Benigni.
Actually, I do have one complaint. The subtitles on this DVD are awful. I noticed many a line that was dropped, many were obscure in their origin (i.e., "Who said that?") and some were unbelievably vague (no antecedents for pronouns). The most distracting example was:
"How is she?"
"My mom? More or less. She has Alzheimer's."
"Is that a new one?"
I do get the idea (I've had to "translate" bootleg subtitles before, which were admittedly leagues worse) but this makes no real sense. More or less? What? This is awful. If you need to know the original language to understand the conversation, there's no point in even HAVING the subtitles. It was terribly distracting and difficult to deal with. Still, that's the fault of Sony Pictures Classics, not the film-makers. But, be warned if you don't know Spanish (like me).