Film Review: Machuca

Machuca movie posterHow about watching a terrific film from Chile? Our local rental place had a closeout a few weeks ago, and one of the DVDs we happened upon was Machuca, a 2004 film by Andrés Wood. What a terrific find!

I am often asked about status and class in Latin America by those who come from more egalitarian societies. Navigating class differences has been one of our greatest challenges living in México; neither life in the US, Spain, nor Japan equipped us for the expected and often desired separateness here. While a period piece, Machuca viscerally illustrates the class differences and tensions of the era, and I would recommend it as a worthwhile resource.

Machuca takes place in Chile during the final years of Salvador Allende’s government — the first Marxist ever to be elected head of a democracy — and ends about the time of General Augusto Pinochet’s military coup d’état. Taking place during this period of heightened civil unrest, this is fundamentally a story about the friendship of two boys: Gonzalo and Pedro, who come from opposite sides of the river and opposite ends of society. Thus, we get a micro and a macro-level taste of class tension.

Gonzalo is a “junior,” the son of a wealthy family who attends St. Patrick’s, an elite Catholic boys’ school. He is frequently forced to accompany his mother during her afternoon trysts. Pedro (Machuca) lives in a shanty town, and is the son of the woman who cleans house for Gonzalo’s family. Pedro is one of a group of “scholarship students” that the head priest has invited to St. Patrick’s in an attempt to create a bit of equity in society.

The movie shows how difficult it is for these new students to integrate, and there is a memorable bullying scene in which Gonzalo defends Pedro. We gain insight into the home lives of both boys, proving of course that richer or poorer, life is not all roses.

The backdrop to the main story is, of course, a Chile in turmoil. Gonzalo’s own parents seem to come down on opposite sides of the issue, his mother content as a socialite, his father at least to some degree believing in the need for increased equity. The street demonstration scenes capture the anger, the power, and the fear of the time.

We witness the backlash of the parents at school to the priest’s “communist” tendencies, because he attempts to integrate groups they feel best remain separate. We glimpse the resourcefulness of Pedro’s “uncle,” who makes a living selling flags to both sides: the Marxists and the traditionalists. We hear about land redistribution and industry nationalization through radio broadcasts and posters in the streets. In movies like Machuca, stories about young friends trying to make sense of the world around them, there is usually a girl. In this case, she is the girl with whom both boys learn how to kiss. And she is most definitely and passionately a socialist.

Watching this film you will learn a lot about Chilean history, the ingrained status in Latin America, and the difficulty in bridging rich and poor and vice versa. If you’re anything like the members of my family, you’ll be talking about it for days afterwards. I’d urge you to get out your copy of Cultural Detective Chile, particularly the Chilean Values Lens, to aid your discussions of the movie. Enjoy! And please, let me know what you think!