Saturday, February 24, 2007

Film Review #86: Machuca
Director: Andrés Woods
Cast: Ariel Mateluna, Matias Quer, Manuela Martelli

It should come as no surprise that other nations have their own 9/11’s. On that date in 1973, Chile’s fighter planes strafed the presidential palace in Santiago. Thus began General Augusto Pinochet’s coup against the popularly elected president of three years, Salvador Allende. Under Pinochet’s regime, an estimated 3,000 died and another 30,000 were kidnapped, tortured and disappeared. Pinochet left power in 1990, but the first of several hundred charges for human rights abuses and corruption were not brought against him in Chile’s own courts until December 2004.

With perfect timing, Chilean director Andrés Woods’ feature film about the unlikely collision of three children’s lives during the run-up to Pinochet’s coup opened in New York less than a month after those 2004 charges were filed. The second biggest box-office draw ever in Chile, popular here and in twenty other countries, Machuca was Chile’s official 2005 Oscar entry. What is surprising is that this memorable, important film hasn’t made the stateside leap to DVD until now. Pinochet’s death two and a half months ago may have spurred Passion River Films, a relatively young distributor of independent and foreign films, to make that welcome move.

Machuca recounts the days leading up to Pinochet’s coup through the eyes of 11-year-old Gonzalo Infante (Matías Quer), a watchful, chubby, red-haired student at an expensive private school. The sole reason Gonzalo ever meets the poor Indian boy Pedro Machuca (Ariel Mateluna) is that Father McEnroe, in sympathy with Allende’s social reforms, takes it in his head to invite five boys “from the neighborhood” to attend St. Patrick’s on scholarship. A core of students immediately and vehemently resist this scheme, turning recess period and the athletic fields into gauntlets and prompting several baffled, saddened and insistent lectures from Father McEnroe (Ernesto Malbran). As Chile becomes ever more polarized, crowds of angry parents, including Gonzalo’s mother, protest the priest’s innovations too.

A sharp, tough kid without an ounce of apology anywhere on him, Machuca knows the deal and holds his own. Gradually he and Gonzalo become friends, relaxing, laughing, each crossing a threshold of risk and trust when he takes the other home. Fresh from nearly gagging in Machuca’s pungent outdoor latrine, Gonzalo meets Silvana (Manuela Martelli), who’s just enough older than both boys to get them going. Thus begins the more worldly education of Gonzalo. He learns kissing from Silvana on the riverbank and from Machuca, the varieties of standing up. The latter lessons include facing down bullies, joining in the entrepreneurial projects of Silvana’s father – the kids sell flags at all the political marches – and absorbing instant rebukes for thoughtless insults. When the military takes over St. Patrick’s and roughly throw Father McEnroe out, it’s Machuca whose simple word of farewell galvanizes the assembled boys. When that same military invades the shantytown, burning, arresting, viciously beating her father, Silvana is a lioness.

As a sleeper image that finally detonates during this climactic shantytown rampage, “clothes makes the man” occurs early. We first meet Gonzalo dressing himself carefully in his school uniform. At first we don’t see his face and then just his reflection in the mirror. Later during the raid, one soldier starts to arrest him too, until Gonzalo insists on the self-evident, shouting simply, “Look at me!” Woods’ pitiless camera fills the screen with Machuca’s long stare.

Woods attended such a school himself – he was eight when Pinochet came to power – and he dedicates Machuca to Father Gerardo Whelan, presumably McEnroe’s model, whose date of death is noted without further comment as 1973. Therefore his film is a kind of emotional memoir. But telling this story through these characters allows Woods to focus on the human cost of Chile’s upheaval. There are just enough snatches of overheard newscasts, political banners, a wall along the highway with graffiti – and those two fighter planes streaking over Gonzalo’s head on their way to the presidential palace – to frame this politically saturated moment. For kids, it really was scary, and the adults really were out of control. There are other films you could watch – Patricio Guzman’s documentaries (though they are hard to find) and Costa Gavras’ Missing (1982), based on a real American journalist’s disappearance during the coup. But Machuca will fly under all your radar about political labels and reach something more elemental.

This review appeared in the 2/22/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly in “Make it Snappy,” a regular column reviewing films that never opened locally & older films of enduring worth. Machuca releases on DVD on March 6.