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.
The Turkish-German actor Birol Ünel talks as if he had a larynx full of ground glass. He walks around half-blind because of the greasy locks draped over his right eye. He does not clean up real nice; his face, when shaved, reacts with shock, as if his skin wanted to recoil from the fresh air. We Americans cannot understand him. Only certain Europeans, the ones who believe Nick Cave is a profound artist, vibrate to the basso thrum of Birol Ünel.
I can see, though, why the writer-director Fatih Akin cast him as a man who deliberately drives his car smack into a wall.
Ünel is the hero, if you can call him that, of Akin’s aptly titled Head-On, which would deserve your attention if only because of the success it has already won. The film took the top prize at the 2004 Berlin Film Festival, went on to score five German Academy Awards and finished the year by claiming the European Film Award. I caught the picture at the Museum of Modern Art’s “Premieres” series, in advance of its mid-January theatrical release, and can testify that I was intermittently amused and never bored, despite the full two-hour running time. That said, I’m most interested in Head-On for what it suggests about its audience’s sensibility.
To Nick Cavean romance of self-destruction and cosmopolitan anomie, Head-On now adds a dash of Oriental flavor, both savory and sour. Cahit (Ünel), a janitor in a Hamburg nightclub, meets cute with Sibel (Sibel Kekilli) in a state hospital for the flamboyantly suicidal. He has recently had his late-night encounter with the wall, just because it was there; and she has slashed her wrists, to suggest to her tradition-bound family that she would prefer to live like a secular European. “Are you Turkish? Marry me,” she says to Cahit by way of introduction. There will be no sex and no obligations on his part; he’ll hardly even know she’s around. All she requires of him is the protective cover of a Turkish husband. Sibel is twenty years younger than Cahit, has the serenely elongated face of a Modigliani painting and offers to show “the most wonderful tits you’ve ever seen.” (The promise, of course, is really being made to the audience; and given the European art-house tradition to which Head-On adheres, Sibel will keep her word.) Despite these stipulations, or perhaps because of them, Cahit turns her down, until she persuades him with a fresh wrist-opening.
For much of the next hour, Head-On plays for laughs, as Cahit carries out his woefully inadequate imposture, grumbles about the transformation of his apartment (“It’s like a chick bomb went off in here,” he mutters, after the crumpled beer cans disappear from the sink) and of course falls in love with his wife, who remains untouchably within arm’s reach and is oblivious to his feelings, hidden as they are beneath a thick layer of scabs. This material is maybe a little rougher than what Americans are used to getting, either in today’s comedy clubs or in yesterday’s movies about generational conflict on the Lower East Side, but it’s conventional enough–pleasing and well done, but familiar. I would guess, though, that it’s novel to European audiences, who are still struggling to assimilate the fact that Muslims of Turkish background are born in their countries, speak their languages and aren’t going away.
Except there’s a twist in Head-On. Sibel and Cahit are going away.
The film’s second hour, which is not played for laughs, has Sibel cutting off her hair and going to Istanbul, where she switches to a more thrashing mode of self-destruction, similar to her husband’s. What Cahit is doing for most of this time, you don’t need to learn from me. It’s enough to say that the characters are soaked in blood, more often than not, and eventually discover they have two countries in which they don’t feel at home.
To me, this enforced glumness became irritating; but then, I’m an American. I expect fantasies of immigration and acculturation to involve playacting, lovemaking and guarded optimism; whereas Europeans, of whatever background, have apparently found those qualities to be the surprise in Head-On, and the abjection of the second act to be the expected and necessary pay-off. In fact, in a canned interview, Fatih Akin has revealed that he originally planned the film’s ending to be happier, along the lines of a comedy of remarriage. Then the need for loss and misery pressed itself upon him–and very successfully, too, given the film’s record to date.
Framing the action, by the way, are performances of traditional Turkish songs by the Romany band of Selim Sesler, featuring Idil Üner as vocalist. Shot on location before a picture-postcard view of Istanbul, the musical numbers provide both ironic commentary and much-needed leavening for the story. I would recommend Head-On if only for them–and, of course, for the three minutes of comedy that Akin wrings out of the question of whether a gift box of chocolates contains any liquor.