‘The Son’ (‘El Hijo’): Film Review

Courtesy of FilmSharks
Unhappy families, revisited.

Argentinian Sebastian Schindel’s second feature is a distinctive psychological thriller about a man for whom fatherhood becomes an authentic nightmare.

A fifty-something bohemian artist learns that becoming a dad is not always cause for celebration in The Son, an intriguing if flawed psychological thriller that plays out not unlike Rosemary’s Baby, though in Argentina and in reverse. Following up former documentary director Sebastian Schindel’s well-received 2014 festival player The Boss, Anatomy of a Crime, The Son again uses Joaquin Furriel as a lugubrious lead who is again buttoned down rather than exuberant and again moves back and forth in time, though now to more suspenseful effect and with added shades of Cronenberg weirdness. Disturbing in the best sense of the word, though sometimes let down by attention to detail, the pic deserves at the least to be adopted by horror fests.

Schindel’s film tackles our basic fears of parenthood, raising fundamental and important questions about the responsibilities we take on when we decide to have a child. (Lesson #1: It can’t be about you, it has to be about the kid.) We first meet Lorenzo (Furriel) and his Norwegian wife, biologist Sigrid (Heidi Toini), pounding away in an attempt to get Sigrid pregnant in an oddly dispassionate manner that chimes well with the quasi-Gothic atmosphere of their home (by the time the final scene rolls around, the house’s Gothic potential will have been comprehensively explored) and with the horrors that will follow. Lorenzo is a former alcoholic with two estranged daughters; now, in middle age, he’s making a second stab at becoming a family man.

After she becomes pregnant, Sigrid’s behavior changes for the weirder: She employs a Norwegian nanny, Gudrun (Regina Lamm), who speaks not a syllable of Spanish, and when they are visited by Lorenzo’s lawyer friend, Julieta (Martina Gusman), and her husband, Renato (Luciano Caceres), it’s revealed that she rarely lets their son out into the sunlight.

Lorenzo makes a massive strategic error by deciding to get their son out of the house, knocking Sigrid to the floor as he does so; the result is that he’s banned by court order from seeing his son. The second plotline traces Lorenzo’s attempts to see the child again, supported by Julieta and Renato. Matters are interestingly complicated by the notion that Lorenzo may be suffering from Capgras syndrome, in which a person starts to suspect that someone close to them has been replaced by a perfect imposter.

Furriel acquits himself well in an interestingly complex role. The owner of a tragic gaze of such intensity that it’s hard to imagine him ever actually smiling, he plays the ever-paint-spattered Lorenzo as more alive as an artist than as a family man, rendering with Jackson Pollock-like abandon the fetus-like seashells that Sigrid studies. When away from his painting, he’s a fish out of water, lost, troubled and uncertain, and when you throw his violent tendencies into the mix, we start to sympathize with the doctors and lawyers who’ve deemed him mad.

Lorenzo appears merely to have passively drifted into his marriage with Sigrid, and some viewers will find their partnership implausible. This view is supported by the lack of character detail assigned to her by contrast with her husband, and a deeper and even more troubling film could have been achieved by raising questions about what has driven Sigrid, this uncanny visitor from the Gothic north, to be so protective of her son and why she refuses to let Lorenzo participate in raising him. Lamm as her twisted assistant Gudrun is wonderful, a Norwegian Mrs. Danvers with the look of your cuddly favorite aunt: Her impact on the film is quite an achievement when not a syllable of what she says will be understandable to non-Norwegian speakers.

The manner in which The Son combines impressive atmospherics with a bang-up-to-date storyline about parental responsibility is sometimes let down. In the drive toward Gothic chills, for example, the lighting in the interiors falls unforgivably low, while by contrast the symbolism is sometimes cracked up too high, as in the repeated references to Goya's masterpiece "Saturn Devouring His Son" (a symbol that, to be fair, is probably a little harsh on the well-intentioned Lorenzo). Meanwhile, things rely a little too heavily on the viewer’s ability to piece together the psychological pieces — why Lorenzo decided to get married to Sigrid at all, for example — and at a plot level, there are a couple of imposters too many hanging around.

Ivan Wyszogrod´s score is jagged, violin-based fare, appropriate but never striking and somewhat overused.

Production company: Buffalo Films
Cast: Joaquin Furriel, Martina Gusman, Luciano Caceres, Heidi Toini, Regina Lamm
Director: Sebastian Schindel
Screenwriter: Leonel D’Agostino, based on a novel by Guillermo Martinez
Producers: Hori Mentasti, Esteban Mentasti, Horacio Mentasti, Guido Rud
Director of photography: Guillermo Nieto
Production designer: Daniel Gimelberg
Costume designer: Carolina Langer
Editor: Alejandro Parysow
Composer: Ivan Wyszogrod
Sales: FilmSharks

92 minutes