Critical Mass
Clandestine Childhood (Spanish Film Festival 2013)

What was life like when you were 12 years old?

Most likely, you were attending school, possibly going on school trips, and maybe starting to notice the opposite sex. You might have had the occasional problem with your parents but otherwise life was easy. Uncomplicated.

You were probably not living under a fake name. You were probably not trying to change your accent and vocabulary in order to avoid political attention. And if you had a secret hideout in your uncle’s garage, it was probably for fun—certainly not in case brutal government forces made an unwelcome visit to your home.

For 12-year-old Juan, life is fraught with the latter burdens. Clandestine Childhood (Infancia Clandestina) tells the story of a little boy who is forced to grow up faster than normal because of his parents’ beliefs and actions. After living in exile, Juan’s parents move him and his baby sister Victoria back to Argentina in 1979, a time of political oppression and instability.

As he adopts his family’s new backstory and carefully minds his Ps and Qs (‘That Cuban accent will get us killed’), Juan, who is now known as Ernesto, struggles to act like a normal Argentinian. At his new school, raising the country’s flag is an honour; however, the effects of being raised by political activists is highlighted in the powerful scene in which Juan starts a schoolyard fight after being unwilling to raise ‘the war flag, the one used by the military’.

Even with such a heavy theme, director Benjamin Ávila manages to turn this story, which is drawn from his own life experiences, into a heart-warming and tender coming-of-age tale with the appropriate injections of tension and drama.

Ávila presents a beautiful and imaginative foray into the mind of a young boy. All the meaningful relationships in this period of his life are wonderfully portrayed through a combination of talented actors, excellent cinematography, and appropriate musical accompaniment. The delightful Teo Gutiérrez Moreno was the perfect choice to play the strong and intelligent Juan; Moreno has a great onscreen dynamic with Ernesto Alterio, who plays Uncle Beto, Juan’s mentor and even wingman. Natalia Oreiro and César Troncoso are also brilliant as Juan’s parents, while Violeta Palukas is sweet as love-interest María.

Imagination scenes are few but well done, especially the scene in which Juan imagines his schoolmates mourning the loss of his life in the way his parents did for their fallen colleagues (‘Perón or death!’).

In stark contrast, the most harrowing scenes are represented as animation sequences; sparse use of this technique prevent the sequences from being jarring, and instead become a more powerful way to show the tragic moments from Juan’s childhood. Other key moments, from his first kiss to the death of important people in his life and his plans to run away to Brazil, range from sweet and gorgeous to absolutely heartbreaking.

In the current spate of films about children growing up in politically unstable times, Clandestine Childhood may not be a completely original idea to film enthusiasts. However, it is a beautifully told tale and should not be missed in this year’s Spanish Film Festival.

Clandestine Childhood runs for 110 minutes and screens for the second time on Friday 21 June at Palace Centro.

Image courtesy of Think Tank Communications.

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