Written and directed by, and based on Benjamín Ávila’s infancy growing up in a family of political activists, Clandestine Childhood takes place at the tail-end of 1979. Juan (alias Ernesto Estrada) and his mother Cristina (alias Charo), father Horacio (alias Daniel), Uncle Beto, and baby sister Vicky have returned to Argentina under fake names after several years of exile to continue their underground counteroffensive against the Military Junta that has taken over the country.
Interspersed with comic book-esque scenes whenever there is violence, and a number of eerie dream sequences, the story is as much about the guerrilla endeavours of Juan’s parents in the Montonero Organization as it is about him trying to retain some normalcy in the wake of constant persecution and fear of government reprisal. This comes in the form of Maria, with whom Juan develops feelings for. Accompanied by a haunting soundtrack of piano and violin, Ávila charts the relationship through camping trips, a birthday party, and the two playing hooky at a carnival, but the framework of Juan’s renegade background that it builds upon conveys the fact that they are star-crossed from the get-go.
But if we’re aware of their inability to be together, we only register it unconsciously. The intimate cinematography, measured and beautiful in its depth, lulls us into a false sense of security. We want Juan to achieve some semblance of a normal childhood – but, like Juan, we can’t escape the political landscape. Throughout scenes of his mother filling chocolate covered peanut boxes with bullets, his father reminiscing about the original Argentine flag without a sun (created by Bergano), and the endearing and romantic philosophies conveyed by “Colonel” Uncle Beto, this grasping at “normalcy” comes to define an everyday struggle – one which is, inevitably, impossible.
The risk in tackling something biographical of this nature is maintaining an objective distance from the content, something which Ávila manages to achieve without distorting sentimentality or shying away from it either. In many ways, the surreal quality of the circumstances, the settings, and the tragedies and victories of the Montoneros all lend themselves to a sort of prolonged flashback – and the perspective is always carefully manufactured from the point of view of a child, which is perhaps what helps us derive our sympathy, not only for Juan, but for the plight of his parents as well.
Natalia Oreiro as Juan’s mother somehow manages to balance a fiercely maternal and compassionate role against an equally fierce and fearless militant enthusiasm. She is Cristina, and she is Charo, and it’s the distinct delineation between these roles that creates such a presence on the screen. Ernesto Alterio as Uncle Beto almost acts as the foil – he is at once a devoted soldier but he is also a lover of life, however he is both of these simultaneously. This role seems almost made for him (he was named “Ernesto” after Ernesto Che Guevara and “Federico” after the poet Federico Garcia Lorca).
There are a few hiccups in the pacing and dialogue, and Teo Gutierrez Moreno’s debut role as Juan is somewhat stoic (although, given the story, it actually works to his benefit), but these inconsistencies are overshadowed by the rest of the film, which holds the tripwire so tightly we feel ourselves on edge whenever we remember it exists.