Clandestine Childhood: an idealised, family version of resistance
by Vitor Pinto
21/05/2012 - Argentina's military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983 is not a unique subject in cinema, or even at the Directors' Fortnight in Cannes. In The Invisible Eye [trailer] (2010), Diego Lerman had already depicted the end of the regime through the story of an emotionally repressed and embittered classroom assistant. This morning in Cannes, another Argentinian filmmaker, Benjamín Ávila, screened his version of these years of repression, lightly and through the gaze of an adolescent whose parents are members of a guerilla group. Clandestine Childhood [trailer] is an infinitely personal film, despite not being autobiographical.
In 1979, after years of exile in different countries in South America, 12-year-old Juan returns to Buenos Aires with his parents. But this return to the motherland is a little different, for it is clandestine. The adolescent has to pretend to be someone he is not so that his parents can continue with armed resistance. His new name is Ernesto, and his idol, instead of Che Guevara, will be his uncle Beto.
Ávila had already made a film about the children of "disappeared" activists during the military regime in his documentary Nietos in 2004. The director's own mother was declared "disappeared" in 1979, and he used his own memories to develop the project. But his collaboration with screenwriter Marcelo Müller was essential for him to surpass his own experience and develop a plot in which thoughts and emotions from his past shone through, but were not limited to the format of a biopic.
Instead of showing its characters' political commitment from a dark or predictable angle, the film focuses more on the domestic, family side of the issue. Although the film never hides the dangers of the situation, it chooses to give ample room to humour and radiant happiness personified by Uncle Beto: a character as revolutionary as he is romantic, and played by the Spanish actor of Argentinian origin, Ernesto Alterio. Uncle Beto is to Juan/Ernesto what, in a certain way, the communist uncle was to young Marjane Satrapi in Persepolis [trailer, film focus]. As the screenplay moves forward, his character is idealised (as we tend to idealise all those we lose), but this idealisation is also, in a way, a homage to all those who have repeatedly brought their encouragement and optimism to the darkest times. This idealisation is also clear in other characters, and in other moments of the plot: whether in the ideal way that Juan's first love's dance is filmed, or in the delicious tranquillity of his mother's voice when she sings and plays guitar for her fellow activists.
In parallel to the idealisation of reality, animated images are also introduced in some sequences. Asked about this choice after the screening in Cannes, the director explained that his intention had been to involve the audience, so that spectators could project their own mental images in some of the keys moments of the film.
Sold worldwide by Parisian sales agency Pyramide Distibution, Clandestine Childhood is a co-production between Spain (Antàrtida Produccions), Argentina (Historias Cinematográficas / Habitación 1520 Producciones), and Brazil (Academia de Filmes).
(Translated from Spanish)