An earnest but dull portrait of a young boy’s coming of age set during the tail-end of Argentina’s Dirty War, Clandestine Childhood suffers from the total lack of critical distance the filmmakers place between themselves and their subject matter. A clunky stream of exposition explains the military junta’s rise to power following Juan Perón’s death before Juan (Teo Gutiérrez Romero) and his anarchist parents, Charo (Natalia Oreiro) and Horacio (César Troncoso), are seen returning to their homeland from their Cuban exile. Residing in the home of Horacio’s brother, Beto (Ernesto Alterio), who runs a chocolate business that’s a cover for lazily unelaborated guerilla tactics, Charo and Horacio force Juan into a life of duplicity, beginning with a new name: Ernesto, after the contemporary left’s patron saint of warfare, Che Guevara. Though a scene in which an oblivious Ernesto joins his classroom in applauding his own fake birth date is jarring for how it places the audience directly into the boy’s discombobulated point of view, the film is otherwise less concerned with understanding the confusion of Charo and Horacio’s anarchist life on the boy’s wellbeing than it is in embossing it with Miramaxical affection.
Save for a volatile exchange between the boy’s mother and grandmother that takes aim at the arrogance of the anarchist way, this semi-autobiographical film idealizes Ernesto’s growing pains through maudlin narrative and artistic form. Because the boy, whose ponderously surrealist dreams would make Luis Buñuel wince, is a would-be artist, animated sequences intermittently articulate the more suspenseful moments from his life, though the conceit feels less like projections of a future genius’s tortured soul than an evasive stock effect. Director Benjamín Ávila, who reveals a particular fondness for rain-strewn windshields throughout, subjects moments of levity and sorrow to practically the same strains of Marta Roca Alonso and Pedro Onetto’s hoary score. He structures Clandestine Childhood as a series of precious moments, remembrances of a difficult year when the politics of patria and family got in the way of his puppy love. And it’s this single-minded devotion to applying the same filter of wispiness to scenes as disparate as a baby being swayed to sleep and Ernesto glancing with excitement at a woman’s chest that prevents his nostalgia porn from rising to the level of a protest song.