Class mates

Andrés Wood’s Machuca became an instant classic for exploring Chile’s class divisions through the eyes of children


Andrés Wood
2004 (Spanish, English subtitles) , Herrero, Hassan, Wood
121 minutes

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

LATAMROB rating: *****

FOR SHEER honesty and courage, Machuca, the third international film by Andrés Wood deserves all the awards it won – and those it did not.

With Machuca, Wood presents a balanced and powerful account of the situation faced by Chileans in 1973, the most divisive year of President Salvador Allende’s Marxist experiment, through the eyes of a 10-year old boy.

Wood was aged 8 when Pinochet sent in the troops and, although not autobiographical, the idea for the script was inspired by the director’s own personal childhood memories, and reconstructs the true story of an American-Irish priest, recreated fictionally in this film as Father McEnroe, to whom Wood dedicates his work. According to a number of observers, the school is based loosely on St George’s College in Santiago, which during the Allende period was run by Father Gerard Whelan, who introduced integrationist measures that eventually led to his dismissal.

The story describes the friendship that develops between Pedro Machuca, a poor child from the shanty town, and Gonzalo Infante, whose parents belong to the cream of the Chilean middle class. Under Father McEnroe, Gonzalo’s private Catholic school, St. Patrick’s, takes in an experimental intake of underprivileged boys, as happened during Allende’s administration, and although the differences in surnames, class, colour and family dynamics are enormous, both boys realise that they have much in common – in particular, their curiosity.

Class tensions

Pedro and Gonzalo discover their similarities when the bully of the class picks on Machuca and Gonzalo takes his side. Grateful, Machuca offers Gonzalo a lift in his uncle’s truck and they both end up selling flags during the street demonstrations that punctuated this turbulent period in Chile. Together, the boys are stigmatised by their classmates until class tensions in the country reach boiling point, with the well-known outcome of Pinochet’s coup.

In reality, when the military took control of the Catholic schools following the coup most of the poor children were expelled for political reasons – although in Wood’s experience some remained there until they reached high school age and, as far as he is aware, were able to forge decent lives outside the shanties as adults.

Twenty years had gone by in the Chilean film industry before anybody dared to make a film about ’73, mostly because it was believed that the public would not like to watch a political film. And although after the end of Pinochet’s military dictatorship directors had hoped that the state would help them to rebuild the industry in the free market, this has still been difficult.

Yet despite these political and economic obstacles – and fierce competition from countries such as Brazil and Argentina – Machuca was the most successful movie to come out of Chile and instantly gained a position at the top table of international classics. As a result, Wood has done for Chile what La Historia Oficial de Luis Puenzo would have done for Argentina 19 years ago.

Matías Ouer as Gonzalo Infante, and Ariel Mateluna as Pedro Machuca are not actors, but both are truly excellent in their roles. Despite the tragic events conveyed by the film, the use of a child as a narrative resource makes it accessible to the viewers of any age, whether they experienced those painful days or not.

Wood’s background as an economist has given him a unique insight as a director of what is, in essence, a political film – and his attention to detail is impeccable. He manages to recreate the atmosphere of the period with accuracy and most importantly, an impartial eye, all the while recapturing the elegance of French cinema.

Machuca was awarded Best Film at the Viña del Mar Film Festival, the Bogotá Film Festival, and the Lima Latin American Film Festival 2004. At the Vancouver International Film Festival it was rated the most popular film and nominated for Best Film at Flanders International Film Festival both in 2004. In 2005, Machuca won the Special Award at the Mexico City International Contemporary Film Festival for Best Latin American Narrative Feature, Best Film at the Philadelphia Film Festival, and the Goya Award for Best Spanish Language Foreign Film. It was also nominated at the Ariel Awards Mexico 2005 for Best Latin-American Film.

Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican writer