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CANNES – 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 (Infancia clandestina) 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 over-filled table – the picture is too mainstream for arthouses, too arty for multiplexes, and outside Argentina, where the wounds depicted are still raw, its best prospects lie as a mid-range festival pick.
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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 guerilla-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 make-up 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 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.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight), May 20, 2012.Production companies: Historias Cinematograficas (in co-production with Habitación 1520, Radio y Television Argentina, Antàrtida Produccions, Academia de Filmes)
Cast: Teo Gutiérrez Moreno, César Troncoso, Natalia Oreiro, Ernesto Alterio, Violeta Palukas, Cristina Banegas
Director: Benjamín Ávila
Screenwriters: Benjamín Ávila, Marcelo Müller
Producers: Benjamín Ávila, Luis Puenzo
Director of photography: Iván Gierasinchuk
Art director: Yamila Fontan
Costume designer: Ludmila Fincic
Music: Marta Roca Alonso, Pedro Onetto
Editor: Gustavo Giani
Sales Agent: Pyramide International, Paris
No rating, 110 minutes.
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