Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Argentine entry for Best Foreign Language Film, Benjamín Ávila's CLANDESTINE CHILDHOOD, opens in New York

What would it be like to have been a child raised in a family of left-wing activist, guns-and-ammunition-running relatives during Argentina's 1970s right-wing military dictatorship -- which has been called the most repressive in that repression-prone country's history? Not a lot of fun, perhaps, but fascinating as hell, at least according to the very interesting, thought-provoking memoir movie based on real-life characters that opens this week. CLANDESTINE CHILDHOOD is the Argentine submission for Best Foreign-Language Film in this year's "Oscar" sweepstakes, and I would not have been surprised to see it make the shortlist.

That it didn't might just be due to the fact that the movie's politics, given the historical situation, seem pretty middle of the road. The co-writer (with Marcelo Müller) and director, Benjamín Ávila (at left) makes certain that we understand the necessity of activists rising up against a tyrannical dictatorship at the same time as he makes clear how deprived in certain ways is their child, the boy who is at the center of this relative-ly stringent movie.

The film's greatest strength -- aside from being compulsively interesting and occasionally nail-bitingly suspenseful -- is that it forces you to identify with all its major characters: those who must fight against oppression, even if it takes their own lives, leaving their children bereft (and who knows what else?); the relatives who want to help the family but are too frightened and cowed by the violence against dissidents to join in their "revolution"; and most of all, the boy himself, torn between the normal needs and desires of approaching adolescence and the need and desire to help and be part of his immediate family.

Beginning with a scene that combines live-action with a kind of classy, children's-book/comic book-style animation, the movie takes us into the mind-set and world of its hero, young Juan (played with exactly the right combination of intensity, fear and childlike understanding by first-time actor Teo Gutiérrez Romero, shown above center, with mom and dad), who will soon be living under the alias of Ernesto, with a fake passport, birth date, birth place, history -- the works.

One important question the movie asks (and without ever out-and-out mentioning it) is this: What kind of children-to-adults do active revolutionaries raise? In one pivotal scene the boy's uncle (a charismatic performance from Ernesto Alterio, above, right) and father argue over the birthday party for the boy soon to take place here at "home" with all his school mates. Does the revolution halt for this event, or is the party merely a wasteful pastime?

Another terrific scene takes place between the boy's grandmother (Cristina Banegas), and the rest of his immediate family, partic-ularly his mother (a rich, multi-layered perfor-mance from Natalia Oreiro, at left, with gun, and 3 photos above), about the child's well-being. There is no "answer" to these questions, only despair, anger and maybe, just a little, hope. The movie is based upon real-life characters; how truthful to the actual characters the film is, I have no idea. But as an entertaining, thought-provoking movie, Clandestine Childhood hits the proverbial nail dead center, with its shock waves manifesting still.

The film, released here in the USA via Film Movement and running 110 minutes, opens this Friday in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza and the Quad cinemas. Click here and scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates around the U.S.

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