Very Good Timing
Sometimes it much more easy to make something more sophisticated, or to tell a story about drugs, prostitution or whatever, than to go to the simple, to the germ, the kernel of what everybody has inside.
Writer-director Alejandro Agresti describes his film Valentín as multiply layered, at once autobiographical, nostalgic, metaphorical, and fanciful. But, he says in an interview included on Miramax’s otherwise extras-less new DVD of the film, he wanted to make a movie he calls “useful.” Toward this end, he says that he cast young Rodrigo Noya because the boy “made everything without a lot of poses, and with very good timing.”
The film begins with a child’s self-presentation. “Hola. My name is Valentín, and I’m eight years old,” he asserts. “I make rockets and I’m working on a space suit.” Inspired by the U.S. and Soviet space programs, Valentín (Rodrigo Noya) has great ambitions. True, he admits, his eyesight is imperfect (he wears thick glasses and his eyes are crossed), but he brightly imagines that by the time he’s old enough to train as an astronaut, the appropriate surgery will be available, and his career will be secured.
As he describes his situation with unaffected confidence, you see how he might be interested in space flight. Abandoned by his parents, he lives in Buenos Aires, in 1969, with his grandmother (Carmen Maura), who loves him but is also variously distracted. (Agresti recalls 1969 as “a last good year for Argentina,” because afterwards, “Everything stood still, with censorship, with massacres, with killing, where the people were living in a kind of 1984 of Orwell. For us, 1969 is a year we can remember with some light and with some colors.”) For one thing, her son and Valentín’s father (Agresti) is supposed to maintain the household financially, most often, as the boy rightly guesses, he’s too busy looking after his own life to remember to send money regularly (which leaves grandma no recourse but to pester him). At the same time, she misses her dead husband deeply, recalling their first meeting for little Valentín in a kind of lovely, longing routine, her nearly overwhelming sense of loss abated by the child’s essential generosity. She asks for a hug and he gives it, unthinkingly, despite the fact that just hours before, she berated him for some minor error.
Valentín’s gentleness is of a piece with his thoughtfulness. Unlike so many movie children, he takes an occasionally unnervingly rational approach to his confusing surroundings, wanting to understand adults’ strange rules and behaviors, but also aware that sometimes, their world lies beyond his comprehension. Curious and independent-minded, he listens carefully as a local priest (Fabian Vena) encourages parishioners to celebrate the life and mourn the death of Che Guevara, recently murdered in Bolivia: some listeners leave during the sermon, as Valentín absorbs the lesson, all of it—the sentiment, the offense taken, the earnestness.
While he is troubled by his father’s absence (and forgetfulness when it comes to fixing the tv set), he also takes him at his word that Valentín’s mother is at fault for her long-ago departure (as he has no other storyteller to ask). In lieu of visits from his dad, Valentín is willing to be thrilled when his Uncle Chiche (Jeanne Pierre Noher) comes by, equipped with the “latest” technology—an audiocassette player he uses to deliver a message from his wife and their babbling infant. Even skeptical grandma is surprised and pleased to hear the baby’s voice.
As Chiche’s life seems so intact, Valentín is understandably intrigued and even heartened. He begins (once again) to imagine a family for himself, just as his father lets drop that he has another girlfriend. Eager to meet her, Valentín agrees to a “date,” that is, a lunch and an afternoon with 22-year-old Leticia (Julieta Cardinali, perfectly late-‘60s chic). Though he spills his drink (and worries, “She probably thinks I’m a little kid”), she’s drawn to him. As their relationship evolves over the course of a few hours, the actors’ rhythms are just right, delicate and attentive. Leticia asks shyly about his background, seeking information on his father, whereupon the child lets slip—not knowing that it’s not the way everyone thinks, of course—that his father not only hates his mother (blaming her for leaving them, and for cheating on him), but also attributes her disloyalty to her being Jewish.
While the camera takes in both Valentín and Leticia at the moment of this revelation, her face is stunning, showing a range of emotions in an instant and a slightly teary glance offscreen, intimating her own sense of being taken aback, as well as in her efforts to maintain her composure at learning that her fiancé is so fiercely anti-Semitic and that he has instilled such ugliness in his beautiful—and beautifully strange—son.
When Leticia disappears following this meeting, Valentín again feels abandoned, then battered, when his father presumes the boy has betrayed him purposely. Valentín turns to a neighbor, the pianist Rufo (Mex Urtizberea), who spends his evenings feeling lonely, smoking cigarettes, and drinking, but offers to teach the child to play during the afternoons. “Rufo was happy, and I was little,” observes Valentín. “He gave me the feeling that I was older and more useful.” Already deep into this new friendship when he learns that Rufo is Jewish, Valentín begins to reconsider everything he thought he knew. Lying in his bedroom at night, he sighs, “Adults seem incapable of telling the truth.”
And with that discovery, Valentín finds his “vocation.” Though he still feels the allure of space travel, he also knows his limits, his own truths. And so, he begins to write, and it becomes clear how this charming, shrewd film has evolved from Agreti’s autobiography. As the artist puts it in his DVD interview, “It’s challenging, from such a little situation, to elaborate with details, without sensationalistic tricks and pyrotechnics, to go around 90 minutes telling a story. Your material is just heart, feelings, human beings.”