MACHUCA (Andrés Wood, 2004)

September 11. On that day in 1973, a violent coup d’état took place in Chile, backed by the pathological U.S. presidency of Richard Nixon and the Central Intelligence Agency. The Chilean military, led by General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende and Allende, abandoned by Leftist supporters attending to their own safety, apparently (though dubiously) killed himself when he no longer could defend the presidential palace. Thus ended 46 years of constitutional government in Chile. Upon taking office in 1970, President Allende, a socialist, had befriended Cuba’s Fidel Castro and nationalized U.S. companies in Chile. Including Pinochet, the four-man right-wing junta that replaced Allende gave the extermination of Marxism as one of its principal goals. Political activity was banned; parliament, suspended; dissidents, murdered. Pinochet eventually restored constitutional government, becoming Chile’s president for an eight-year term beginning in 1981. He had already agreed that his successor would be a civilian.

Machuca, a Chilean film with additional funding from Spain, France and the United Kingdom, takes us back to September 11. Three children—two boys and a few-years-older girl—are eyewitnesses to history. The boys, Gonzalo Infante and Pedro Machuca, are pupils at a Church-run private school in Santiago. Gonzalo is there by dint of family wealth and class, but Pedro, rechristened Peter, is one of a half-dozen scholarship students—natives; Indians—from the adjacent slums. Thanks to Father McEnroe, who is egalitarian, students like Pedro are being admitted to St. Patrick’s, which teaches English, for the first time. Across the barrier of class, Gonzalo and Pedro become friends, each becoming the other’s protector at school. Silvana, Pedro’s cousin, helps inaugurate the sexual education of the two eleven-year-olds, and both she and Pedro introduce Gonzalo to Leftist street agitation. The children’s world is ripped apart by Pinochet’s bloody coup. The military take over the school, deposing the priests, including Father McEnroe. No longer is the boys’ friendship tenable. In “Shantytown,” Silvana is murdered in front of Gonzalo by the raiding and rioting military police. “Look at me!” Gonzalo shouts at the officer who grabs him—meaning, “Look at me: I’m white!” He takes off on his bicycle for his posh home, haunted for the rest of his life.

The film itself testifies to the degree that “Gonzalo” has remained haunted, since the film is semi-autobiographical and Gonzalo is based on Andrés Wood, one of the co-authors of the script and the director of the film. Moreover, Machuca is dedicated to the memory of the actual head of St. Patrick’s, 1969-1973—the character on whom Father McEnroe is based. But, of course, movie memories are mixed in with the other memories. Father McEnroe, beautifully played by Ernesto Malbran, cannot help but remind us, at least a little, of Don Pietro Pellegrini, the heroic priest in Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945); and over all the scenes at school, especially at the last, hangs the aura of Louis Malle’s Au revoir, les enfants (1987). Wood’s film is not as trenchant as Rossellini’s, to be sure, but neither is it as sentimental and fanciful as Malle’s convenient revision of his own history during the Occupation of France. Nor does Wood’s film, in an odious melodramatic frenzy, bash the poor and the working class as does Malle’s regrettable film.

For the most part, the filmmaking is conventional, at times, formally uninteresting, and much too much footage is taken over by Gonzalo’s mother’s extramarital affair, which bears no political resonance that I can discern. I like the film’s balanced quality; for instance, the economic wobbliness of Allende’s Chile is frankly acknowledged. But nearly everything comes together with great power in the film’s final movement. From the climax—the coup—onward, the film is hallucinatory, fierce, surreal, a stunning depiction of how children would see and, when no longer children, remember such tumultuous events. Suddenly the filmmaking becomes peerless. When Gonzalo rides his bicycle away from “Shantytown,” furiously, for the last time, a closeup of his peddling feet continues on upward to create an image of the boy’s expanded size correlative to the enormity of his fears and to his widened political awareness, both at the moment and in retrospect. In this last movement, then, Wood’s film enters the territory of John Ford, with its double sense of time, the event in both the moment and in memory.

I was not entranced by this film every shot of the way; but it delivers. I understand it is also the first fictional Chilean film to address this part of Chile’s past. Perhaps it is a mixed bag, but that is no reason not to see it.

Machuca won a number of best film prizes at Latin American film festivals.

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