How does one become a terrorist? Is there a terrorist hotline a potential martyr can call to clarify such things? There must a number of criteria any terrorist wanna-be would be expected to fulfill before being able to join up. One thing, for instance, that would puzzle me is whether one can be gay and a terrorist at the same time. While the answer is self-evident when it comes to the radical Islamists, it isn’t necessarily a given when it comes to our own European brands – IRA and ETA. In any case, 18-year-old Xabi, the main character of the Spanish director Antonio Hens’ first feature film „Clandestinos”, should have called this hotline before he decided to try and win the heart of Iñaki, an older ETA commando, by staging a self-styled terrorist attack in the middle of Madrid, thus proving himself to be „worthy” of the old terrorist’s love, for they might have told him that the monochrome worldview of a terrorist’s mind doesn’t seem to have the ability to see any of the rainbow colours.
Xabi and his Mexican friend Joel stage a dramatic escape from a juvenile correctional facility in Ciudad Real in the south of Spain. Facing an imminent deportation to his native Morocco, also Driss seizes the opportunity and flees the prison with them. Soon thereafter the trio boards a bus bound for Madrid where they meet two girls who are returning from the sunny beaches of southern Spain. Joel doesn’t waste any time and quickly befriends the girls, so when they arrive in Madrid, it goes almost without saying that he stays with them. Driss who feels that he ows his new found freedom to Xabi follows him to Iñaki’s flat only to discover that it’s empty and the man himself is gone. Iñaki doesn’t reply to Xabi’s calls and seems to have vanished without a trace but that doesn’t make Xabi lose his heart. On the countrary, he is determined to prove to him that he has all it takes to be a useful gudari, fit to fight for the Basque cause.
Short of cash, he goes back to turning tricks, something he also did before ending up in prison. One day he is picked up by an elderly policeman who takes him back to his house. In the morning, while his trick is still asleep he goes through the drawers of a desk in his study and finds a gun. When the old guy suddenly appears in the doorway, Xabi panicks and flees the house with it. This turn of events prompts the old cop to initiate an investigation of his own which soon enough leads him to the correctional facility in Ciudad Real. Here he examines the young fugitive’s former lodgings, full of Basque flags and banners where he also comes across a photo of Xabi and Iñaki, a well-known Basque terrorist. Different pieces of the puzzle start to fit together.
In the meantime, Xabi is set on implementing his plan – he is to blow up the massive Spanish flag on Columbus Square in the Spanish capital with some home-made explosives. And it actually turns out to be a piece of cake to get hold of all the necessary ingredients for the bomb in a local DIY store. He also enrolls the help of Driss who would do anything for his new friend. At the same time, Xabi continues to pursue Iñaki whose female companion starts getting suspicious. After answering Iñaki’s phone to Xabi once, she decides to find out who this unwelcome stalker is and even pays him a visit threatening him with dire consequences if he doesn’t lay off. Obviously being a complete closet case, Iñaki denies any knowledge of the boy to his companion but when Xabi’s bomb does go off sabotaging the real ETA commandos’ plan, the Xabi problem becomes too paramount to be ignored any more. But the old policeman has his own plan how to rescue the lost soul of the wanna-be terrorist.
Despite its main premise, „Clandestinos” isn’t as much a film about terrorism and its roots as a need for identity and search for love. Being abandoned by his parents as a child, Xabi finds himself drawn to a trick who turns out to be a Basque terrorist. Through him he feels that he too has found not only love but also some sort of purpose with his life. People who have never been short of love rarely become fanatical supporters of a cause which doesn’t even have anything to do with them. The need to be loved and respected by the object of one’s desire can lead to extremes if one’s despair is bad enough. At the age of 18 people also tend to be uncompromising in their beliefs. The black and white understanding of things is also what actually helps the terrorist recruiters to find so many willing to die for the sake of a cause. The reason why Xabi, who was definitely ripe enough to be plucked by the ETA recruiters, was never taken onboard has to be sought in the circumstances under which he and Iñaki met. For Iñaki to admit to being gay would most probably have meant a political suicide.
„Clandestinos” may seem like a heavy drama. It is not. Honestly speaking, I’m not sure any Spanish director is actually capable of making a drama à la Fassbinder or Bergman. Even the delicate matter of terrorism, which has claimed many Spanish lives, is treated here with a great deal of black humour. It should also be noted that the film provides a fair deal of eye candy too since our protagonists aren’t shy of their bodies and don’t mind showing them off. Terrorists or not, the feeling that you get after watching this film is definitely not terror.