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.