Filmmaker Alejandro Agresti's childhood in Buenos Aires left a lot to be desired.
He was beaten by his father, separated at the age of 4 from his alcoholic mother and raised by his grandmother. She died when he was 9. Agresti then lived with an uncle before moving in with his abusive father. At age 14, Agresti left home for good.
Over the next 25 years Agresti held on to one fond memory that stood out amid the misery: an afternoon he spent with his father's girlfriend Leticia. Two years ago, that recollection spurred Agresti to revisit his past in the form of an autobiographical character study titled "Valentin," which opens Friday.
"The day I spent with Leticia was one of the happiest days in my life," says Agresti during a recent visit to Los Angeles. "I always remember when we went to the park and to the cinema. That is the heart of the film, and at first I wanted to do just a movie about this boy walking through the city with her as we learn about this relationship they share."
In "Valentin," Agresti fictionalized his childhood as filtered through the viewpoint of a spunky 8-year-old named Valentin. Although he dreams of becoming an astronaut, Valentin has more immediate concerns. He wonders why his mother has abandoned him, schemes to keep his grandmother alive and befriends the eccentric Jewish musician who lives next door, all the while hoping his playboy father will marry the nice woman named Leticia so he can finally have a "normal" family.
"For me, the interesting thing is trying to open the brain of a kid as he's telling you all his secrets, his thoughts. When you are an adult you receive everything by logic, but here, everything is filtered through the perspective of this kid, and that can be sad and funny at the same time."
To cast the younger version of himself, Agresti auditioned 300 youngsters who overacted while their stage mothers coached them from the wings.
"They were so melodramatic, crying, 'Mama, mama, mama!" says Agresti, "I was disturbed." Then Rodrigo Noya, a cross-eyed 7-year-old who'd never acted, showed up. "He was very low-key, and he took his time to say his lines, and he had this wonderful kind of old-fashioned voice. Rodrigo was fabulous."
Agresti takes off his sunglasses to demonstrate one trait he does not share with young Valentin. "Very stupidly, for one minute, I thought, well, how are you going to have a cross-eyed kid hold the film, alone? But I adjusted the script after I got Rodrigo and incorporated the defect into these scenes where he's talking to himself in the mirror."
Though Agresti has made 15 features that have earned him a following in Europe and South America, he had never worked closely with child actors, so before production began, he and Noya prepared for the shoot by going fishing and playing video games together.
"I became a kind of uncle for him," says Agresti. "What helped during the shooting is that he knew these things really had happened to me and felt sometimes like it was his mission to vindicate my childhood, you know? Normally an actor will ask the director, 'What do I do?' Rodrigo would ask me, before a scene, 'What did you do?' And when I'd say 'Cut' he'd look at me and say, 'You did it like this?' So you play out the scene, and then they're imitating you. It's like a game.
"And doing the voice-over, he'd sit in my lap with a mike, and I'd say the line, and he'd repeat it. That was very nice." Agresti reluctantly assumed the part of Valentin's father. "The cast members, they all go to psychoanalysis and they tell me, 'If you play your father it will be a catharsis.' None of the actors in Buenos Aires wanted to be the father; everyone was saying, 'Alejandro has to play it himself.' In the end, it didn't help me.... It felt like hell, shaking the kid and screaming at him. It was terrible."
Like his assertive protagonist Valentin, Agresti learned to rely on his wits as he was shunted from one household to another. At 15, he had his own apartment and a job as an electronics technician. By 20 he was directing TV shows on Buenos Aires' leading television station while making his first feature on weekends.
"All the materials was there at the TV station, so I stole it, and with that I shoot my first feature film. Then I emigrate to Europe and somebody gave me the money to edit it, and then I go to the Berlin Film Festival, where I got a prize. Like Valentin, I made a plan. I always said, 'Do it yourself.' "
Agresti settled in Holland, intent on distancing himself from Argentina, where he'd been a member of the Young Communists Party. Several of his friends disappeared, presumably kidnapped, tortured and killed by the country's military rulers.
"I needed an environment where I could function, and if I stayed in Argentina, it was too heavy for me -- too many memories. Already my childhood was a mess. Already I suffered with all this military, and the friends I lose, so I decided, 'I'll go away and forget.' "