"Secretos del Corazón", is a sensitive, delicate, touching film made by one of the most talented Spanish filmmakers, the Basque Montxo Armendáriz. Perhaps the most impressive thing about it is how shrewdly Armendáriz captures the web of guilt, fear and repression of 1960s Spain, when the omnipresence of ponderous Catholic rituals and rigid moral codes translated the oppression of Franco's dictatorship to perfection.
We follow 9-year-old Javi (Andoni Erburu), an intelligent, naive, over-protected, sensitive kid learning to deal with the harsh process of growing up and overcoming his many fears (of crossing a stream, of an old empty house, of ghosts, of big bullies in school, of the dark, of school punishment, of losing his mother's love), discovering "shocking" family secrets and the raw truths of life (sex, death, violence, lies), facing the bewilderment of asking something to adults and not having honest answers back, or not being able to understand them. If you've been raised in a Latin Catholic country, you can relate even more closely to "Secretos del Corazón": a sort of education that -- as Javi's wise grandfather says -- never teaches children anything about the really important facts of life.
Everything in "Secreto" is skilfully accomplished: the cast is uniformly inspired, with Charo López as the liberal-minded aunt Maria and Joan Vallés as the stern grandfather especially fine. The costumes and set design take you right back to 1960s Spain, the plot unravels quietly and harmoniously so that when the big "revelation" comes it doesn't seem contrived. But above all, the triumph belongs to director Armendáriz's enormous sensibility and his extraordinary child actor Andoni Erburu, with his sad Pierrot face (somewhat reminiscent of Isabelle Adjani's), his toothy shyness, big curious eyes and emotional transparency that covers a large spectrum, but is never "cute" or maudlin -- it's a wonderful, natural, unforgettable performance, with a kind of innocence that's so hard to find today it drives you right back to another era (Erburu is from a rural Basque background), and can only be compared to Ana Torrent's fabulous performances in the 1970s for Saura and Erice. He deservedly won a collection of awards with this role, including the Goya and the Spanish Acting Guild Award for Best Newcomer.
I liked this film so much I asked a friend to buy the DVD in Spain (unfortunately no one could find it in New York - hello DVD stores! - this was an Academy Award nominee for best foreign film!), so I can watch it again from time to time. If you like a well-told story sensitively directed and acted, and aren't frightened by moderato pace, you'll find "Secretos del Corazón" richly rewarding. It makes, with Carlos Saura's haunting "Cría Cuervos" and Victor Erice's spell-binding "El Espíritu de la Colmena", an incomparable triptych of studies on childhood, loss of innocence, sexual repression and moral/religious/political oppression under Franco's Spain. Don't miss it.