‘Infancia Clandestina’ (Clandestine Childhood) is a new film by Argentine director Benjamín Ávila. Earlier this month, it was submitted by Argentine Academy for Cinematographic Arts and Sciences to represent the country in the category of Best Foreign Film at the 2013 Academy Awards.
Drawing on his own childhood experiences and those of co-writer Marcelo Muller, Ávila’s film tells the tale of a family of guerrilla fighters, struggling against the military dictatorship led by Jorge Rafael Videla in the late 1970s. The film is based on true events and is partly autobiographical: Ávila’s own mother was a resistance fighter before becoming one among thousands of “desaparecidos”.
Videla was in power in Argentina between 1976 and 1981. His authoritarian regime presided over what is commonly known as the “Dirty War”. It was, however, a war merely by name and nothing else, instead comprising of mass state-sponsored kidnappings, murders and disappearances of anyone who opposed the military junta. Among the pockets of resistance fighting the dictatorship were the Montoneros, a Marxist guerrilla organisation that emerged in the late 1960s and was heavily targeted by the military.
The film is shot through the eyes of Juan (Teo Gutiérrez Moreno), the 12-year-old son of two important Montonero leaders: Daniel (César Troncoso) and Cristina (Natalia Oreiro). The family are forced to flee to communist Cuba when things become unsafe for them in their homeland, but in 1979 they decide to return after two years in exile to once again take up their guerrilla struggle.
It is at this point in the story that the film begins and the meaning behind its title becomes clear. In order not to arouse suspicion on return to Argentina, all family members must take on false identities. Juan’s new passport declares that he is from Córdoba and will now be known as Ernesto. Ávila opts to focus on the humorous side of this otherwise perilous situation, and we are treated to heart-warming scenes in which Ernesto’s parents watch as their young son clumsily attempts to change his pronunciation from that of Cuban Spanish to Argentine.
Daniel and Cristina, with the help of uncle Beto (Ernesto Alterio), set up a chocolate distribution company as cover for their illicit activities. Blindfolded montoneros are regularly led into their house to receive orders from the couple, who run clandestine operations out of the base in Buenos Aires. A hiding place in the garage is created in case of emergency, and Ernesto is instructed to take his baby sister there if ever they encounter danger.
Many of these scenes are shot using a hand held camera, which successfully conveys the sense of camaraderie that exists amongst the revolutionaries. Cinematographer Iván Gierasinchuk bathes the images of the Montoneros sitting around and singing in yellow light, creating a feeling of warm nostalgia for pre-conflict times.
Alongside the obvious trauma and fear that comes with having to assume a false identity, Ernesto attempts to live the normal life of a schoolboy and has to deal with the added stress of falling in love for the first time. Ávila portrays the adolescent romance by employing close up camera shots of his protagonist’s eyes, gazing longingly at his female classmate, Maria (Violeta Palukas). This, combined with some clichéd dialogue between the lovesick youngsters and excessive use of slow motion footage, is the films weakest trait and adheres too closely to a stereotypical portrayal of teenage romance. Despite this, Teo Gutiérrez Moreno produces a mesmerising performance as Juan/Ernesto, displaying immense charisma and maturity beyond his years.
The film’s most powerful scene occurs when Beto arranges for Ernesto’s grandmother, Amalia (Cristina Banegas), to visit. She is invited to take part in her grandson’s fake birthday party. Ernesto is only made aware of the fact that it is supposedly his birthday when all his classmates start singing to him. He joins in, before realising that it is him they are singing to. An argument breaks out after the birthday party, when Amalia, at first tentatively, but then hysterically, tries to voice her concerns about the safety of her grandchildren to her daughter and son-in-law. It is an incredibly thought-provoking scene in which Ávila highlights the impossible ideological conundrum facing revolutionaries. The Montoneros are fighting for a better future for their offspring but in so doing are threatening said children’s lives. The powerful line “esto es un tiempo de compromiso” (“this is a time for commitment”) is repeated several times by Ernesto’s father to justify their actions, but only serves to increase the tension in the room. No character dares to properly expand on the matter, for fear of further upsetting the others. The audience gets the impression that this is a subject over which different generations will never be able to see eye to eye.
Whilst recently there has been a seemingly endless number of films made about this turbulent episode in Argentina’s past, Ávila still manages to produce something original and moving. His use of animation to depict and diffuse the violence seen through the child’s eyes is brilliant, and forces the audience to imagine their own brutal reality. Politically, the film manages to remain surprisingly bipartisan. It shows the violence to which the Montoneros were subjected, but also highlights the way in which they ruthlessly risked the lives of other, including their own children, to achieve their goals.
One critic called the film “too mainstream for art houses, too arty for multiplexes”. Yet it is precisely this trait that makes the work so appealing. The film combines accessible, realistic drama with visually stimulating camera work and animation. It takes a much covered topic, and instead of focusing predictably on violence and politics, offers a heartfelt depiction of the day-to-day emotional trauma experienced by a generation too young to fully comprehend the situation, with no choice but to cope as best they could.