We’re told before the opening credits that Clandestine Childhood is inspired by true events, but it isn’t until the end credits that we understand just how true the events were. The film tells the semi-autobiographical story of director/co-writer Benjamin Avila, who was born in Argentina at the height of the Dirty War, a period of guerrilla warfare and state-sponsored violence against thousands of left-wing activists. Between 1976 and 1983, after the military was forced from power, it’s estimated that 9,000 to 30,000 people were killed or had simply “disappeared”; it’s believed that at least 10,000 of them belonged to the Montoneros, a militant guerrilla group that sought to win the favor of the people by shattering the illusion of democracy and exposing the reality of government fascism. Avila’s mother was affiliated with the Montoneros and would ultimately be killed by the military.
Avila channels his personal experiences into the story of an eleven-year-old boy named Juan (Teo Gutierrez Romero), who was named by his parents, active Montoneros members, after exiled Argentine president Juan Peron, a man they saw as their leader despite his obvious right-wing tendencies, not the least of which was his outlining of the counterinsurgency that aimed to decimate all guerrillas. In 1975, when Juan was only a young boy, he and his parents were forced to flee Argentina for Cuba. They would not return until 1979, when the majority of the film takes place. Even then, they had to return separately and with forged identities, which they had to adopt when out in public. Those outside of his immediate family refer to Juan as Ernesto, who, according to his papers, was born on October 7 and came from the city of Cordoba.
In spite of what my opening paragraphs suggest, this is not a message film with a clear political ideology in mind. In reality, the film is a deeply engrossing character study, one in which the lead character’s coming of age is founded not on the quest for answers and experience but on his understanding of compromises and hardships. There’s nothing typical about Juan’s development as an individual, even though, like any boy his age, he’s being shaped by social, familial, and environmental influences; because his parents are radical activists clinging to Peronism by little more than their fingernails, they have imposed on him a very strict set of rules, none more confusing and damaging than not being allowed to use his real name.
One of the film’s strengths is that we’re never forced into feeling any one way about Juan’s parents. We cannot condone the fact that their actions repeatedly endanger the lives of both Juan and his infant sister, Vicky. For that matter, we cannot condone the fact that they had children at all, given the fact that their dangerous political beliefs don’t easily accommodate family units and are not consistent with a stable home life. At the same time, at no point do we question their love for their children. They each provide as best they can, and even dispense their wisdom when the occasion calls for it. In a playful and especially peaceful moment on a grassy meadow, Juan’s mother (Natalia Oriero) explains what it was like for her to fall in love. And although Juan’s father (Cesar Troncoso) doesn’t respect the Argentinian flag emblazoned with the Sun of May, even he can see the folly in Juan getting into a fight over refusing to take part in his school’s daily flag-raising ceremony.
A subplot explores Juan’s growing feelings for his classmate, a burgeoning gymnast named Maria (Violeta Palukas), who dreams of seeing the beaches in Brazil. Although I’m forced to question the plausibility of a romance this strong budding between people so young, at least Avila doesn’t cop out with forced depictions of pubescent sexuality. Although both Juan and Maria do toy with the physical intimacy of kissing, which is even then relatively innocent, the relationship they share is much more emotional in nature. When they’re together, we ponder Juan’s mental clarity. Can he separate the real Juan from the alias he has been assigned? Can he conceivably form a relationship, adolescent or otherwise, with anyone under false pretenses? Should he be allowed to love at all, seeing as that doing so would drag an innocent person into his parents’ dangerous political activism?
Although Juan is close with his parents, we sense that the most influential person in his life is his uncle Beto (Ernesto Alterio), whose house, where Juan and his parents now live, doubles as a secret gathering spot for Montoneros (it’s so secret, in fact, that anyone who visits must be driven there blindfolded). We know Beto is sympathetic to the cause, and yet we also know that he’s much more relaxed than his brother is. Whether or not he’s more relaxed to a fault, I cannot say. What I can say is that his sense of family is unwavering. Over the objections of his brother, for example, he surprises Juan by reuniting him with his beloved grandmother (Cristina Banegas), whose concern for her family’s safety causes considerable friction. And then there’s the scene Beto gives Juan advice on the best way to win Maria’s affections – using chocolate-covered peanuts as an illustrative example. Little moments like these allow Clandestine Childhood to transcend mere historical fiction. It’s a human story, and a damn powerful one.
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