Film Review: Clandestine Childhood

Episodic cine-memoir dramatizes an Argentinean filmmaker's early life with intermittently effective results.

The latest in a seemingly endless run of features about innocent children coping with the horrors of South American political oppression in the 1970s, Benjamín Ávila's Clandestine Childhood is an earnestly heartfelt cine-memoir based on the director/co-writer's own tragic early life. For those aware of it, this autobiographical aspect—detailed in the closing credits—adds an extra layer of intensity to an intermittently gripping study of a fifth-grader living under an assumed identity in 1979 Argentina. But otherwise, Ávila brings very little that's new, surprising or fresh to an already overfilled table—the picture is too mainstream for art houses and too arty for multiplexes.

A lengthy opening sequence provides a clumpy blizzard of exposition about the military junta's activities in Argentina following the death of President Perón in 1974. Many rebels left the country to plot the overthrow of the government, including the Peronist “Montenero” faction. In Clandestine Childhood, an Argentine/Brazilian/Spanish co-production, these include the family of introspective young Juan—played by appealing, solemn-faced newcomer Teo Gutiérrez Romero—who has spent most of his life in Cuba with his parents Horacio (César Troncoso) and Charo (Natalia Oreiro).

When they return to Buenos Aires, they live with Horacio's brother Beto (Ernesto Alterio), whose chocolate-peanut business is effectively a front for anti-government action. Juan is enrolled at the local public school under the name “Ernesto” and must unobtrusively integrate to avoid the finger of suspicion falling upon the neighborhood's new arrivals. Juan/Ernesto would be happier with a “normal” life, however, especially as this would simplify his courtship of his best friend's sister, budding gymnast María (Violeta Palukas).

As an intimate portrait of quite passionate puppy love, Clandestine Childhood is quietly effective in the way it parallels Juan/Ernesto's dawning sexuality with his realization that his family situation compels him to precociously develop a political awareness. Seeing guerrilla-revolutionary action through the eyes of a child has its pitfalls, however, as for obvious reasons the main action unfolds some way away from Junior's eyes—such as the harrowing deaths of several family members, which Juan/Ernesto learns about second-hand.

With a conventional, manipulative score by Marta Roca Alonso and Pedro Onetto, this debut feature from Ávila is an episodic recreation of what are presumably key events and memories of his childhood. And while Iván Gierasinchuk's digital images have a clean, unfussy look, period detail largely consists of giving the adult males unflattering hairdos, moustaches and clothing. (As usual in such pictures, the women for some reason are allowed to get away with relatively modern-style makeup and coiffure.)

After kicking off with an arresting bang via a prologue of stylized animation courtesy of illustrator Andy Riva—traumatized memory reconfigured into jarringly stylized red-black-gray flashes—Ávila settles into a safe-hands approach, calling on Riva only twice more throughout the course of an overlong narrative. And, as is often the case with directors who adapt their own life histories, there's the sense that he’s a little too close to his material. The eminently understandable need to pay emotional tribute to beloved family members ends up superseding considerations of pacing, story shape and narrative development—elements which are crucial to a film being able to stand on its own merits without any audience awareness of the autobiographical trappings.
The Hollywood Reporter