Montxo Armendáriz’ Secrets of the Heart (1997) isn’t quite a great movie, but it doesn’t miss it by much. While coming-of-age movies are in the dime-a-dozen category, movies addressing the earlier aspect of childhood—the awakening of consciousness to the world around us and the mysteries of it all—are considerably rarer. Moreover, there’s always been a tendency to make the films that do touch on this part of childhood a little too cute (thank you, Disney) or else incorporate them as part of a larger story. Secrets of the Heart veers toward the former only in terms of casting the rather precious Andoni Erburu in the lead. In the latter capacity, everything is subordinated to the childhood perceptions of Javi (Erburu) and is filtered through his eyes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that so completely captured the idea of how strange, mysterious, frightening and even incomprehensible the world is to us in early childhood.
There’s not so much a story here as there is a simple depiction of Javi’s growing awareness of the world around him. What is unusual in all this is that the film offers few actual “penny drops in the slot” revelations. It’s clear that Javi is incapable of completely processing what he sees, but that one day—for good or ill—he will. At the beginning of the film, he’s a complete innocent—fully wrapped in the false belief that the adults in his world are all wise, knowing and free of uncertainty and fear. By the end, he realizes they aren’t, but he doesn’t understand the specifics. At the same time, Javi neatly falls into the natural progression of things, moving from being taught to being the teacher—even if all he’s doing is copying and building on the things that older children have taught him. In this, Secrets of the Heart touches on an often-ignored aspect of childhood—how much of what we learn in childhood comes from other, savvier children and not from adults.