Valentin is Argentine author/director Alejandro Agresti’s name for himself in this tender depiction of his childhood in 1960’s Buenos Aires, but much of the story is universal. The movie tracks a crucial year in the life of ten-year-old Valentin, and the only indication that it takes place in 1969 is a scene in which an anguished young priest watches most of his congregation walk out when he preaches a sermon in praise of Che Guevara, whose death in Bolivia has just been disclosed. (Guevara, himself an Argentine, was obviously not a popular one in Peronista times.)
Valentin, played by the very winning Rodrigo Noya, is a lonely little boy who wears glasses to correct his cross eyes and dreams of being an astronaut. He lives with his grandmother, who loves him well enough but spends most of her time mourning her husband and griping about Valentin’s father, who occasionally visits the boy but provides no money for his support.
Valentin struggles to understand the grownups in his life, all of whom persist in failing him in some way. His grandmother kvetches incessantly. His parents have divorced in mysterious circumstances. His mother has vanished utterly; his father is an incurable skirtchaser with an explosive temper who regularly brings over the latest woman of his dreams, who just as regularly breaks off the affair in short order. Valentin’s young uncle is affectionate and entertaining but simply not around enough to make a difference. And nobody wants to hear about astronauts.
A precocious and resilient boy, Valentin works hard to manipulate his world to make everything work out right in the end. When his grandmother gets sick and refuses to see a doctor, Valentin cons a distinguished physician into a staged meeting in the marketplace to bring doctor and patient together. When his father brings over a drop-dead gorgeous stewardess — she’s a ringer for Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour, another 60’s tip-off — the boy does everything in his power to bring them to the altar, but of course the feckless dad soon loses the lady. Determined to establish a lifelong relationship with someone, Valentin works things out so he can continue seeing her anyway. If he can’t have a mother, he’ll have a girlfriend.
Valentin also befriends a neighbor, a reclusive hard-drinking musician as lonely as the boy is. They forge a friendship that surprisingly manages to survive, as the musician pulls himself together and comes through for Valentin in a major crisis instead of diving into the nearest chianti bottle.
All this is shown strictly from Valentin’s point of view — supported by the boy’s excellent voiceovers — but without an ounce of condescension, and the result is often lovely. The adults are shown as Valentin sees them, overbearing, short-tempered and self-involved, reminding the viewer of how precarious the foundations of childhood really are, particularly to the child. Valentin’s is not a tragic childhood — we are not in Polanski territory — but it is a difficult and problematic one and he deals with it bravely and ingeniously.
The ending, alas, is too pat and too upbeat. (Even if it really did happen this way, it doesn’t work cinematically.) The movie ties up all the loose ends with an implausible explanation of the mother’s disappearance and a highly improbable last-minute romance, and concludes with Valentin’s decision to forget about outer space and become (surprise!) a writer. But meanwhile we have spent 90 minutes relearning what it actually feels like to be ten, and that is quite enough. It will be interesting to see where Agresti goes now that he has this one out of his system.
– Kendal Dodge Butler