Writer-director Montxo Armendariz's most ambitious film to date, "Secrets of the Heart" delves, with grace and intelligence, into the wondrous, fearful world of children. With memorable performances from the youngsters involved, this handsome production, set in provincial Spain in the early '60s, succeeds in involving the adult viewer in the lives of its young heroes at a time when, in Franco's Spain, there was plenty to be worried about. Pic could score with sophisticated audiences in many territories, and is likely to enchant all who see it. Nine-year-old Javi (Andoni Erburu) lives with his older brother Juan (Alvaro Nagore) in the home of their maiden aunts, sentimental Maria (Charo Lopez) and strait-laced Rosa (Vicky Pena). They're told they live here in the town rather than with their widowed mother in a country village nearby because here there is a better school. For holidays, they return to their mother's village, where Mother (Silvia Munt) lives with her aged father-in-law and brother-in-law (Carmelo Gomez), a farmer. Young Javi adores his uncle.
Momentous events occur in Javi’s life over the few months covered in the film. He and his best friend, Carlos (Inigo Garces) nervously explore a supposedly haunted house, where a man allegedly killed his wife and her lover; Juan has told his brother that ghostly voices can be heard in the cellar, and the boys seem to hear something when they explore the dilapidated, eerie mansion.
Javi is also discovering sex. In one of the film’s highlights, he and Carlos pay all their pocket money to a slightly older girl who promises to show them her private parts and then cheats them out of their money. Director Armendariz lingers fondly on the amazed faces of the lads when they discover they’ve been fooled.
The inquiring Javi, who is forever asking awkward questions of the adults around him, senses that there are some dark family secrets which he’s eager to explore. His father, he’s told, died cleaning his gun; blood still stains the chair where he sat. But is that what really happened? And isn’t his mother rather too friendly with her brother-in-law? And what does Aunt Maria know about the man who used to live in the haunted house? And why does Carlos’ mother drown herself?
The little boy’s search for the answers to these questions forms the basis of this beautifully observed and detailed film, which inevitably evokes memories of other fine Spanish films about childhood, Victor Erice’s “Spirit of the Beehive” and Carlos Saura’s “Cria.” While not in the same class as either of those classics, “Secrets of the Heart” is still a considerable achievement.
Much of the film’s success derives from the natural, charming performance of young Erburu as the inquisitive, rather devious Javi. Also very good is Inigo Garces, as his shy friend, and Alvaro Nagore as his apparently infinitely more experienced brother.
All the adults are good too, especially Charo Lopez as Maria, who is rather too fond of drinking wine to assuage her loneliness, and who, to the horror of her sister, seizes one last chance at happiness; and Vicky Pena as the stern but desperately lonely Rosa. Pena is very touching in a key scene in which she weeps as Javi quizzes her about her unmarried status.
Armendariz directs with a firm and sensitive hand, and all production values are of the highest order.