Before Night Falls
The Chilean coup of 1973 was carried out with a Lone Ranger comic book, a bicycle and several cans of condensed milk. Other equipment, including rifles, also figured in the event; but according to Andrés Wood's surprising new feature film, Machuca, the military hardware remained mostly on the outskirts of consciousness.
It seems the condensed milk played its major role during the run-up to the coup. Silvana, a wild girl of the shantytowns, used to extort this treat from 11-year-old Gonzalo, a chubby, piglet-nosed rich boy whom she repaid with her lactose-sweetened kisses. The bicycle was Gonzalo's means of getting to her: pedaling from his fancy neighborhood in Santiago to Silvana's tumbledown district beside the Mapocho River. Once there, he could hang out happily with her and with his sole friend, Pedro Machuca, a charity student at Gonzalo's upper-class, English-language boys' school. As for the beautifully hardbound comic book that Gonzalo shared with Pedro, it turned out to pose a challenge. If the Lone Ranger and Tonto could ride together, then why shouldn't lasting friendship take hold between a poor and distinctly Indian-looking kid like Pedro and a soft, strawberry-haired freckle-face?
The answer: On September 11, 1973, military jets attacked the presidential palace in Santiago, ushering in the Pinochet dictatorship.
Machuca is hardly the first movie to filter great events such as these through the minds of children. You're familiar with the trope; and you may guess, going in, that class divisions will ultimately overpower boyish affinity. The movie's effect therefore depends on your feelings about these particular children, and about the specific objects--bicycle, condensed milk, comic book--that rule their imaginative lives.
The effect is that of a slow-acting drug. For a long time everything feels normal. Then you get a little tingly. And then, all at once, the world rearranges itself.
This is to say that Wood first establishes an intimate scale, beginning with close-ups of Gonzalo (Matias Quer) putting on his uniform for Saint Patrick's School--the white shirt, the tie, the jacket. Soon after, Gonzalo meets the handful of poor boys whom the liberationist headmaster, Father McEnroe, is now determined to toss in among the wealthy. At once, you notice that Pedro (Ariel Mateluna) has a hole in his sweater. It's not the biggest hole you've ever seen; the camera doesn't drop into it; but given the film's sartorial setup, it registers as strongly as Pedro's tense posture, or his reluctance to speak to Father McEnroe in a tone above a whisper. A small directorial gesture--but it will have devastating echoes by the end of the film, when the separate fates of the boys are decided by a pair of American-brand sneakers.
By that point, of course, Wood also will have established a larger scale, as seen in his re-creations of the street demonstrations of the early 1970s. Though impressive for their size, their period detail and the mere fact of having been shot in Santiago, these scenes are most memorable for the private joy that Gonzalo finds in them. He tags along to the rallies with Pedro and Silvana (Manuela Martelli), who hawk flags without prejudice to all demonstrators--one set for the nationalists, another for the socialists--but nevertheless let out a little nonprofessional enthusiasm when the crowd's for Allende. It's at one of these latter gatherings that Gonzalo, teased into action by Silvana, begins to jump up and down with the pack. The way he smiles then, with his hair flopping around his face and his school uniform coming undone, you realize he'd never before thought he could get off the ground, even for a second, or that he could find himself flanked in mid-air by two friends.
At such moments, Machuca seems to open outward with Gonzalo's discovery of a bigger world in which to move about--a discovery that's matched by Pedro's wonder at everything he sees in Gonzalo's home. (You have a staircase? It goes up?) The tragedy of Machuca is that all this will soon be shut down, with a bang.
And the art of Machuca? I'd say it lies in the modesty of the approach, despite those period re-creations. Wood and his co-writers, Roberto Brodsky and Mamoun Hassan, perhaps exaggerate only in creating the character of Gonzalo's mother, a slim and adulterous clothes-horse who contrasts too neatly with the fierce but candid Silvana. Aline Kuppenheim, a soap-opera star in Chile, gives a credibly restrained performance as the mother; but even so, I found myself remembering the hysterics of Téa Leoni in Spanglish, as she went about embodying all the sins of her class. Kuppenheim, too, becomes an allegorical figure by the end of the movie. I'm sure Santiago de Chile in 1973 had plenty of women this wealthy, this casually brutal, this manipulative yet chaotic in their sexuality; but it's still a mistake for Machuca to reduce a person to the status of condensed milk.
But maybe I'm the one who's exaggerating, since my complaint merely points up the extraordinary consistency of tone of Machuca. It's an insidiously unforced movie, never drawing attention to its own cleverness, always investing meaning and tension into its details, until the moment when Gonzalo hears two jets zoom overhead and then sees, far off in the distance, a little plume of smoke. No more jumping up and down for this boy; no more friends.
Machuca begins its US theatrical run at New York's Film Forum, January 19, and will also be shown on the Cinema Tropical distribution circuit. In Chile, it was last year's number-two film at the box office and now, astonishingly, will represent the country as its official entry for the Academy Awards.