Machucaby Naomi Daremblum
2004 Menemsha Films
In Machuca, an award-wining Chilean film released to critical acclaim and a short New York run in 2004, co-writer/director Andrés Wood delivers a powerful and touching story about friendship—its importance, its potential for redemption, and its ability (or inability) to withstand pernicious influence.
The film occurs in the months that precede the 1973 army-led and CIA-backed coup d’etat against President Salvador Allende. In the progressive spirit of the times an improbable relationship develops between Gonzalo Infante and Pedro Machuca—Gonzalo is a member of Chile’s elite; Machuca comes from a Santiago shantytown. Their friendship deepens as the political situation reaches its terrible denouement.
Wood deftly conveys this collision of universes through detailed camera work, presenting the contrasting minutia of the boys’ disparate lives in lingering, often unsettling, close-ups. The dark and dank humility of Machuca’s home is revealed by a set of tattered dishes on a table. We see Gonzalo’s swanky 70s upper-middle-class life through the awed eyes of Machuca, his whistle of material jealousy emphasizing the point.
The movie masterfully evokes the era’s zeitgeist. The vibe is all there—in the fashion, the music, the décor, the semi-decadent sexuality. And most tellingly in the politics. The ideas of social justice and equity that make Gonzalo and Machuca’s friendship both possible and utterly doomed are not offered overtly. The horror of the coup plays like a soundtrack—on the radio we hear snippets of news bulletins about strikes, on TV we see images of Allende’s trip to the Soviet Union, we catch glimpses of newspaper headlines about the end of capitalism.
Wood’s most impressive success is his ability to present this simmering economic and social tumult as Gonzalo and Machuca’s playground. In the best moments of the film we get finely-textured scenes which juxtapose the boys’ innocence, their mutual fascination and the historical undercurrents that will determine the fate of their relationship. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Gonzalo tags along with Machuca and his beautiful teenage cousin Sylvana as they sell cigarettes and flags at the endless parade of political rallies that incarnated 1973 Chile. The children exuberantly participate in back-to-back rallies—first chanting to the rhythm of the Nationalist party’s “death to communism,” and then to the rhythm of the Socialist party’s “death to capitalism.” Their enthusiastic naiveté makes the deadly atmosphere seem like high-spirited fun. That fun evaporates in the gathering storm of violent class hatred.
The acting is quite wonderful. A not-to-be-missed brief but deliciously wicked turn by Argentinean star Federico Luppi gives the movie its one despicable quasi-villain. And the young Matías Quer plays Gonzalo with a precocious and affecting soulfulness.
Naomi Daremblum teaches Latin American politics at The New School.