Argentinean writer/director Benjamin Avila’s first feature film, “Clandestine Childhood” (“Infancia Clandestina”), is a brilliant and riveting cinematic memoir of his actual childhood that focuses on events in 1979 during the bloody period of Argentina’s “Dirty War.”
The story of a family on the run is told through the eyes of 12-year-old Juan who, along with his parents, uncle and baby sister, have fled to Brazil from Argentina. Juan’s parents and uncle are members of the revolutionary group Montoneros, and have changed their names and identities so that they can ultimately return to Argentina to launch a counter offensive against the brutal military dictatorship.
What is an unavoidably dark reality is handled with great care and sensitivity in a beautifully photographed and intimate film. Despite the grim back story, Avila is visually able to remind us what it’s like to be a young boy coming of age. Juan not only discovers girls but, given his family’s dangerous circumstances, must cope with becoming a man.
Every actor in the film delivers honest and unaffected performances for which Avila must share in the credit. You care about the characters because they seem so real. It starts with young Juan (Teo Gutiérrez Romero), a thoughtful, curious young boy caught in the middle of a brutal world. The entire movie hinges on his character, but Romero pulls it off convincingly.
So many scenes are simple and yet memorable. In a park Juan is with his mother, Cristina, played by Natalia Oreiro, whose natural beauty is enhanced by seemingly not wearing a drop of makeup. Crawling around on the blanket with them is Juan’s adorable baby sister. Smitten with a charming 12-year-old classmate, Maria (Violeta Palukas), Juan timidly asks his mother about love. Playfully, Christina tries to get the details from her shy son. The result is a touching scene between mother and son which is believable and endearing.
Another scene that resonates comes when Uncle Beto (played by Ernesto Alterio, who manages to steal each scene) essentially explains the birds and bees to his young nephew. Beto does so by demonstrating to the mesmerized Juan the proper way to savor a chocolate-covered peanut.
A bit later Juan convinces Maria to ditch school and spend the day with him at an amusement park. In a brilliant montage which captures childhood joy, the two wind up in a visually intriguing mirror labyrinth. Juan tries to persuade her to run away with him as he has stolen some money from his parents he naively thinks they could live on forever.
At 12, Maria is, of course, too young and loves her family way too much to join him. Rebuffed, Juan realizes he can’t escape the reality of his dangerous life and reluctantly returns home.
Considering the subject matter, “Clandestine Childhood” could have easily been too dark of a story to tell. Instead, it’s romantic, joyful and gorgeously shot. And when tragedy does occur, it’s handled so delicately that it doesn’t contrast too harshly with the rest of the film’s tone.
The emotional impact of this powerful story is enhanced even more when, during the credits, we see photographs of the real characters in 1979, including a very young Avila who, 30 years later, would write and direct a jewel of a film.
“Clandestine Childhood” is available anywhere new DVDs are sold.
Jack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.