3½ stars (out of four)
"Machuca," from Chile, is a fine, exciting film that makes a bloody historical event live all over again by showing it through the eyes of children on the edges of the conflict. Portraying the coup d'etat that toppled the leftist regime of Chilean President Salvador Allende 1n 1973, from the perspective of preteen schoolkids, the film guides us movingly into that era's political debates, street battles and escalating violence. It makes us feel the grip of fear throttling the country.
"Machuca" was inspired by the childhood memories of Chilean director/ co-writer Andres Wood, who re-creates Allende's final days and catastrophic fall (on Sept. 11, 1973) from the viewpoint of two young boys attending a Santiago private school called St. Patrick's. One fictional boy, modeled on Wood himself is Gonzalo Infante (Matias Quer), from a "good family," while the title character, Pedro Machuca (Ariel Mateluna), is a poor scholarship student from Santiago's shantytown. The third member of their little triangle is Pedro's slightly older cousin, Silvana (Manuela Martelli), with whom both boys fall in love.
Class and politics are the key elements here, in both the national battle and the smaller drama of the three children--but Wood doesn't treat any of it in a bluntly didactic way. Gonzalo and Pedro are thrown together naturally when a group of the "snobs"--rich young bullies who haze and persecute the scholarship kids--try to force Gonzalo to join in a schoolyard beating of Pedro. Instead, Gonzalo turns against the snobs. Soon, he's hanging out with Pedro, Silvana and the older Willi (Alejandro Trejo), who peddles both left and right-wing flags to the various demonstrators, depending on which side is marching.
Quer has the pasty, overfed look of an indulged bourgeois boy, and Wood strongly conveys how Pedro and Silvana represent for him an exhilarating escape from the comfortable, suffocating world of his parents. Gonzalo's mother, Maria Luisa (Aline Kuppenheim), is having an affair with their older, more conservative neighbor, Roberto (played by the famous Argentine actor and matinee idol Federico Luppi, star of John Sayles' "Men With Guns"). And Gonzalo's father, Patricio (Francisco Kings), prodding his family toward flight to Italy, explains, "Socialism may be good for Chile, but it's not good for us."
By contrast, Pedro, Silvana and their families seem to live in a more honest, active world of marches and confrontations. The uninhibited Silvana is even a bit like a kid version of Jeanne Moreau's vibrant rebel Catherine in Truffaut's "Jules and Jim." In one remarkably sensual scene, she sips milk from a can and then passes it to both Gonzalo and Pedro with open-mouth kisses.
Wood is a left-winger himself, but he doesn't dramatically stack the deck here. He shows the flaws of both sides: drunkenness, abuse and self-created misery in the shantytown society, hypocrisy and exploitation in Gonzalo's parents' world. The entire film has a smudged, hazy look, which Wood and cinematographer Miguel John Littin (son of the famed radical Chilean filmmaker Miguel Littin) get by using super 16 mm and natural light and letting the backgrounds fade out a little.
Even so, his sympathies are obvious. The school's progressive forces are led by Father McEnroe (Ernesto Malbran), a character based on the late St. George's headmaster, Father Whelan. Rather than a rabid revolutionary, Father McEnroe is shown as a conciliatory, fair-minded man trying to knit together the various factions of his church. The movie is called "Machuca," but Gonzalo is its center of consciousness, and Silvana (beautifully played by Martelli) makes the biggest impression: thin-skinned, intense, fervently political and violently opposed to the "snobs." The best recent film portrayals of Allende's fall include two documentaries: Patricio Guzman's "Salvador Allende" and Ken Loach's segment of the omnibus film "11'09''01." But, more than either of them, "Machuca" has a feeling of truth: that strong sense of re-created reality we feel in Truffaut's "400 Blows" or Louis Malle's "Au Revoir les Infants." A story of national violence and guilt seen through innocent eyes, "Machuca" communicates the moral crises of Allende's fall with so much dramatic force that I think it can be enjoyed by people of many political persuasions, who simply like humanity and a good story.
Directed by Andres Wood; written by Roberto Brodsky, Mamoun Hassan, Wood; photographed by Miguel Joan Littin; edited by Fernando Pardo; production designed by Rodrigo Bazaes; music by Jose Miguel Miranda and Jose Miguel Tobar; produced by Gerardo Herrero, Hassan, Wood. A Menemsha Films release; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. Running time: 1:55. No MPAA rating (parents cautioned for scenes of violence and sensual suggestion).
Gonzalo Infante - Matias Quer
Pedro Machuca - Ariel Mateluna
Silvana - Manuela Martelli
Maria Luisa - Aline Kuppenheim
Roberto Ochagavia - Federico Luppi
Father McEnroe - Ernesto MalbranCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times