Machuca: A film Review

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The feature film Machuca was co-written and directed by Andres Wood. Released in 2004, the film is set before and after the 1973 Chilean military coup. Wood eschews historical evidence in favor of a dramatic depiction focalized by the social dynamics of an upper-middle class family. The film is in essence a coming of age tale. The story is primarily told from the perspective of a young boy, Gonzalo Infante, a privileged youth attending a private school in Chile. The film begins as the school's headmaster, Father McEnroe, introduces Gonzalo's class to five new students. The new students are visibly poor, which is evident from their dirty faces and ragged clothing. Father McEnroe informs his class that these students are from 'nearby', and asks if any of the students know the newcomers. One of the young affluent students responds that Machuca's mother performs a laundry service for his family. The headmaster then disrupts the social hierarchy by altering the students' seating arrangements, creating hostility, as the class bully must surrender his premium 'cheating' spot behind the class nerd 'Gonzalo'. This simple yet effective introduction offers a first glimpse of the social chasm that exists between the wealthy and the poorer, marginalized members of Chilean society. The opening scenes successfully represent a microcosm of Chilean culture.
This social experiment parallels the policies of President Salvador Allende's Marxist Government. Allende nationalized the banking and mining sectors and introduced sweeping land reforms. These policies alarmed the U.S. Government and led to the “economic sabotage”1of Chile by the U.S. This foreign interference is revealed casually during a conversation between Gonzalo's parents, illuminating the skyrocketing inflation and boom in black market activities. The complex economic problems had exhausted Chile's foreign exchange reserves, and in 1972 inflation had “climbed from 33 to 99.8 percent”2
A difference of political opinions manifests itself within the family shortly after a televised news program reports President Allende's visit to Communist China. This scene briefly communicates the everyday problems of Chilean society and the political division among family and friends. It appears as though Gonzalo's mother and father quarrel over a wide range of topics including economic and social issues. The domestic tension felt at home is offset by the graphic novel, The Lone Ranger, a gifts from his mother’s dear friend Roberto Ochagavia. This book alludes to a friendship between an American settler and a native Indian. Andres Woods intentionally uses the comic book to represent the bond between the strawberry Gonzalo and his indigenous friend.
The following day at school, Gonzalo is accosted by the class bully and his small gang of thugs. The bully demands that Gonzalo participate in the beating of the underprivileged Pedro Machuca. When Infante refuses, and instead attacks Pedro's tormentors, the bully retaliates by throwing stones; striking Gonzalo in the head. Pedro respects Gonzalo's heroic defiance and the two become friends.
Pedro offers Gonzalo a ride home and we are introduced to Machuca's neighbors: the jolly Uncle Willi and his daughter Silvana. In a bid to escape his suffocating family, Gonzalo offers to assist his new friends in their day of labor. The scene then transitions to a high-energy protest; Uncle Willi sells Chilean national flags and cigarettes to the mob. Gonzalo enjoys the thrill of participating in this demonstration. In an amusing fashion, the scene changes, and the government flags are replaced by those of the opposition. Uncle Willi, the consummate businessman, serves no political agenda-only his wallet. The scenes create a view of a motivated population divided by moral perspective and wealth. Gonzalo is then seen accompanying his mother to visit her friend Roberto Ochagavia. The gentleman is wealthy and lives a life of luxury.
Roberto is friendly with Gonzalo, commenting on their shared experiences and bribing the youth with massive quantities of candy. It is during the discourse between Roberto and Gonzalo's mother that the viewer begins to sense that perhaps Gonzalo's fair appearance is the result of heritage. Roberto then disappears with his mistress and we are left to contemplate the emotional void felt by Gonzalo at the revelation of his mother’s infidelity. At this point the story shifts from the suburban homes of the bourgeoisie, to the desperate conditions of Machuca's shanty-town.
The young Infante decides to pay a visit to his new friend’s house. The camera quickly pans across figures hunched over, laboriously digging in mud. There is a cinematic shot of men and boys carrying scraps of tin and wood and the camera focuses upon the ramshackle houses built from garbage. Gonzalo is horrified by the shanty-town's lack of plumbing and is confronted by Silvana, who mocks and teases the wealthy boy. Their flirtation is interrupted by Pedro's father. Mr. Machuca assaults Pedro's mother and robs his family of their savings, which he spends on drink. Pedro chastises his father. His father responds by prophesying the future friendship between Pedro and Gonzalo. Mr. Machuca predicts that Pedro will be cleaning toilets his entire life while his prosperous friend will enjoy a life of wealth and power.
His father’s outburst forces Pedro to test his friendship. Machuca invites himself over to Gonzalo's home. Gonzalo is not completely comfortable but allows his friend to visit. Upon arrival at the Infante home Machuca is attacked by Gonzalo's sister's boyfriend. The boyfriend is a big threatening bully. A right wing supporter with nun chucks. He harasses Machuca and the bravery Gonzalo once displayed evaporates. Andres Wood took particular care in presenting his villains as Pinochet supporters; Ordinary characters yet vaguely menacing. “In a country beset by acute economic crisis, social conflict and political polarization, perhaps half the population initially supported the new military government, expecting it to be moderate and transitional.”3
Andres Wood's direction succeeds in creating an atmosphere of tension and doubt. Machuca survives the sinister boyfriend and his idle threats. These events do, however, help to dramatize the racial tension. A foreshadowing of the violent coup d'etat which looms over the narrative. The film continues to reinforce an element of fear through a community meeting at the catholic chapel. Father McEnroe must face off against an angry division of the schools parents. They are outraged that he has allowed poor children to mix with the affluent. Machuca's mother makes an emotional appeal suggesting that the poor would not be poor, if given the opportunity for education and enhancement.
After unsuccessfully convincing his family of the dangerous instability within Chile; Gonzalo's father abandons the country. He leaves for Italy, packing everything he owns. This increases Gonzalo's sense of isolation. Meanwhile the blossoming relationship with Silvana intensifies and it becomes clear Gonzalo is developing an interest. The differences in their social status is made apparent while during a political demonstration, Gonzalo's mother attempts to defend Silvana from an angry mob, gives up and denounces her. Silvana must flee for her life as the mob becomes extremely violent. Uncle Willi shows up to escape with the children in his truck.
Shortly after this harrowing experience, the three friends are riding Gonzalo's bicycle in the shanty-town. The bicycle is a symbol of Salvador Allende's attempt to provide the poor with a means of escaping their poverty. “Pedro and Silvana try to ride the bike once again without Gonzalo's consent, but this time Gonzalo runs after them shouting 'rotos, culiados' (an insult used to refer to poor people). The spell is broken. Without the consent of the upper class Pedro's ride becomes a theft.”4
Silvana and Machuca are outraged and abandon the bike. The mood of the film changes drastically after this argument. The theft of the bike and division between friends coincides with the military usurpation of the legitimate Chilean government. The following day at school Gonzalo and Machuca are greeted by armed guards in front of their school. A severe military officer expels several students and warns that any dissent will be punished.
Gonzalo then returns to his friend’s impoverished neighborhood, hoping they will forgive him for their differences. He is shocked to discover the military has deployed soldiers to the lower class residences. Gonzalo watches in horror as the mostly indigenous population is rounded up into large trucks. Uncle Willi is pushed into the mud and kicked and beaten while his daughter Silvana screams in protest, exasperating the soldiers. While attempting to defend her father, Silvana is fatally shot. Gonzalo witnesses the tragic death of his girlfriend and barely escapes from the same fate. A soldier grabs Gonzalo but is persuaded to release him on account of his expensive shoes.
The movie ends as Gonzalo's mother and sister move in with the wealthy Roberto Ochagavia. Gonzalo stares solemnly into a wide empty field where his friends and an entire community had disappeared. The narrative blends historical events with strong symbolism in order to “expose the hidden realities of Chilean life under Pinochet's regime.”5 The film chronicles two tales simultaneously: a boy's metamorphosis into manhood and the transformation of Chile from a civil nation to a state of unspeakable evil. The movie sends a strong message that warns the world to be vigilante against intolerance.


1. Mabasa Sasa, “A Chilean Example,” New African, August /September 2007 p.145.
2. Paul E. Sigmund, “The Invisible Blockade and The Overthrow of Allende” Foreign Affairs, Jan1974, Vol. 52 Issue 2, P.335.
3Peter Winn, “Chile: Twilight of the Goons” The Nation, November 8th, 1975, Vol. 221 Issue 15.
4. Luis Martin-Cabrera and Daniel Noemi Voionmaa, “Class Conflict, State of Exception and Radical Justice in Machuca” Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1 March 2007, P. 70.
5. Keith D. Dickson “Canadian Journal of History”, Spring 2008, Vol. 43 Issue 1, P.187.

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