Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Aug 06, 2005 1:08 pm 
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An uneasy relationship between two boys and a coup

Santiago, Chile on the eve of the Pinochet coup of September 11, 1973: a pudgy, redheaded eleven-year old from a well-off family, Gonzalo Infante (Matias Quer) attends Saint Patrick's, an "English" prep school. Inspired by Allende's leftist government Anglophone headmaster Father McLaren (Ernesto Malbran) introduces some poor neighborhood boys into Gonzalo's class. Thus Gonzalo meets charity classmate Pedro Machuca (Ariel Mataluna).

Machuca shows an uneasy mutual attraction of rich and poor at a crucial moment in Chilean history: Gonzalo helps Pedro with his English, lends him his expensive hardbound Lone Ranger comic books, and brings him to his posh home. And in return Pedro defends Gonzalo on the frequent occasions when he's bullied by other boys and introduces him to the new world of his family and his shantytown life.

The movie draws a cold-warm contrast along with the rich-poor one. Gonzalo's father isn't very present, and his mother (played by Aline Küppenheim) is often absent messing around with a an Argentine businessman of a certain age and a certain wealth. She's a skinny clothes horse who drags the boy to her assignations. Her pet name for him is the condescending "Gordito," "Little Fatty," and he, rather too obviously, has little use for her. The right wing is sneering and hostile, perpetually pissed off at the Allende government. "Gordito's" older sister has a fascist boyfriend who spouts anti-socialist talk and menaces Pedro with nunchucks. Somehow he and Gonzalo's slick, boyish dad are very Seventies. The film's subtly expert at evoking period and place. The clothes and haircuts, the drab colors and amber filters are all firmly in character.

One day instead of riding home with his mom Gonzalo gets in a truck with Pedro's uncle and meets the Machuca family, including the uncle's daughter, the vivacious, exaggeratedly hard Silvana (Manuela Martelli), who later trades kisses for rationed cans of condensed milk. Gonzalo joins them in selling flags at both right and left wing demonstrations and jumping up and down to mock "commies" and "mummies" alternately. They don't care which, except they join in a bit more for the leftists, and so does Gonzalo, who's enjoying a whole new forbidden world of humanity, politics, and risk. Poverty and underdevelopment on the one hand and bourgeois discontent -- with Allende and boring lives -- on the other are on the edge of the story throughout. The film intercuts family scenes on both sides of the tracks with school scenes.

It would be unfair to say the contrasts are too easy, though sometimes they're a little obvious. The Machuca household's no picnic or love-fest. Though Pedro's mother is pretty and sweet, his dad's a useless alcoholic who comes by only to ask for money. Silvana's a good contrast to Pedro, because she's less in awe of Gonzalo's life. He can't get over the closet full of clothes and the Adidas tennies in Gonzalo's bedroom. She's savvy and political enough to see Gonzalo's class as the enemy.

Meanwhile there's a vociferous meeting of parents of the Saint Patrick School where the loudest mouths are anti-liberationists who damn headmaster McLaren and call for the removal of the charity students -- and him. Outside in the streets we often see political slogans, and the big marches where the kids sell flags reflect the political ferment that's in the air.

All this is very interesting -- despite a certain desultory quality in the action and the weakness that neither Gonzalo nor Pedro, believable though they are, is particularly compelling as a character or charismatic as a person. But Machuca exists primarily for its bitter, cynically realistic finale in the terrible CIA-led Golpe de Estado and its aftermath, which we briefly see from the point of view of Gonzalo and the Machuca family. The news comes on the tele. The left-leaning Father McLaren is immediately replaced by a military officer, and children whose parents were close to Allende are removed from Gonzalo and Pedro's class. In a startling scene the Father comes back to the school chapel during service and rapidly consumes all the communion wafers and then declares the chapel no longer holy; and the boys, led by Pedro, bid him a fond farewell. "Goodbye, children," he says, echoing and perhaps ripping off the moving end of Louis Malle's 1987 masterpiece Au revoir les enfants -- which Machuca obviously parallels, though Jewish persecution and World War II hover over the two schoolboy friends in Malle's film instead of poverty and a right wing coup.

Most dramatic of all, Gonzalo is in Pedro's neighborhood during the murderous military purge and sees Silvana killed as soldiers take people away. Terrified of being linked with them and taken away himself, Gonzalo denies any connection with the people there, pointing to his Adidas. It's perhaps ironic to us to think that for several decades in America such shoes have been trophies worn by ghetto kids, at times stolen from rich boys to do so. Here they can only mean you're rich.

Gonzalo rides his bici away and walks right into the luxurious home of his mother's lover, seeming to embrace for that moment the worst aspects of his own background out of fear. He's scared "right," as it were. The boy who was displaced earlier to put Pedro next to Gonzalo in class is back in what was Pedro's desk. But when he asks for answers to a test Gonzalo writes "ASSHOLE" (in most excellent English) on the paper and gives it back, turning in his own test with no answers -- as the boldest and coolest of the poor boys had once done -- and walking out.

The material in Machuca is undeniably important. The volatility of the situation it chronicles can be seen today in what's happening in Venezuela, though Chavez so far has been impossible for the CIA to oust -- perhaps because his government has been more truly socialist than Allende's and consequently has a stronger popular base. Many scenes in Machuca work, but the lack of charisma is a flaw, and the screenplay and direction aren't quite tight enough to prevent a few longueurs. The filmmakers aren't entirely up to the demands of their compelling material. But the result is still essential viewing.

David Walsh has discussed the historical and political aspects of Machuca on the World Socialist Web Site. Walsh argues that Wood can't decide what he thinks about the working class people in the film -- or about the Allende regime -- and may not really understand either.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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