A well-played, emotionally potent drama set after Argentina’s 1976 military coup when critics of the new regime famously “disappeared,” Marcelo Pineyro’s marvelously human “Kamchatka” narrows its focus to one family — and in doing so becomes a touching universal statement about love and loss. Though pic is thin on character development and sometimes sluggishly paced, its high-profile cast and heart-tugging theme has made it Argentina’s Foreign-Language Oscar submission and led to a stateside pickup by sales company Menemsha. Offshore arthouse interest is possible beyond Hispanic territories, though the film’s scarcity of historical context will be an obstacle to international chances.
Father (Ricardo Darin) is a lawyer married to a university science teacher (Cecilia Roth). They have two children: Harry (Matias del Pozo) and The Midget (cheeky-faced Milton de la Canal). Following the coup and much to Harry’s chagrin, they leave the capital for a country hideaway to wait for things to calm down.
When they are all forced to assume new identities, the son becomes “Harry,” after his hero Harry Houdini. Characters are mostly referred to by their false names, underpinning the notion that their true identities have been taken from them.
Linear storyline moves from one key event to another. The kids start attending a religious school; the mother loses her job; Harry misses home. The claustrophobia of their new life is nicely rendered, with plenty of intimate conversations as the adults struggle to maintain the kids’ innocence and a brave face. The edginess of their situation is suggested rather than stated, in such details as Roth’s continual cigarette smoking and the Midget’s bed-wetting.
A visit to the boys’ beret-toting grandfather (Hector Alterio) and grandmother (Fernanda Mistral) further builds up the impression of a contented family, with mother and father dancing together by the lake as if snatching at moments of happiness they know could be their last. The multiple affirmations of parental and romantic love are dramatically right but can’t hide the fact that the characters barely develop. This generates several slow moments, especially in the middle section.
With no explanation, teenager Lucas (Tomas Fonzi) comes to stay and, after initial jealousy, he and Harry become buddies. Lucas’ eventual disappearance is as ominously unexplained as his arrival. After such careful preparation, the final scenes were always going to be powerful, and pic doesn’t disappoint in this respect: The subtly realized last reel is memorably poignant.
Substituting narrative drive for symbolism, Pineyro invests every little detail — a toad on its back, a trapped bird, the board game which father and son play — with neat metaphorical comments on capture and escape, resistance and repression. But these sometimes feel too symbol-heavy and crafted.
Point of view is basically Harry’s, with occasional v.o. by him, and script communicates well his incomprehension of the awful new world in which he finds himself. The political backdrop comes mainly through TV footage or snatches of conversation overheard by Harry.
Perfs from the name cast are strong across the board, with only Roth sometimes too histrionic for comfort. (One of the film’s themes, after all, is the equanimity with which these people are confronting the new horrors.) The kids are a revelation, particularly del Pozo, who bears much of the pic’s emotional weight on his 10-year-old shoulders.
Lensing by Spanish d.p. Alfredo Mayo is crisp and attractive, Bingen Mendizabal’s orchestral score is pretty but sometimes intrusive, and period detail is spot on. The enigmatic title comes from the board game played by father and son.