Set in the turbulent months leading up General Augusto Pinochet’s violent coup on 11 September 1973, the film’s historical events are witnessed by child protagonists, Gonzalo, Pedro and Silvana. Specifically, the film follows Gonzalo as his loyalty is caught between his middle-class, and mostly right-wing family, and his two new friends, Pedro and Silvana, who come from a newly erected slum in the capital city Santiago. Their meeting is the outcome of a socialist programme within Gonzalo’s private school that offers scholarships to students from poor backgrounds yet much of the film plays out amongst their families and the urban districts of Santiago. At the same time that Gonzalo’s father sweeps confidently through the black markets and his mother conducts a clandestine affair with a wealthy Argentine benefactor, Pedro and Silvana join their uncle making small change from selling memorabilia to the opposing political factions demonstrating on the streets. The friendship and the conflict around them change their lives and their country forever.
When Andrés Wood’s Machuca opened to nationwide box office success and critical acclaim in Chile during 2004, it placed itself within a twenty-first-century generation of bold and provocative Latin American films and proved that after almost 30 years without any significant film industry, Chilean cinema was able to return to the world stage. It was all the more remarkable for its sensitive treatment of Chile’s political history at a time when discussion of the country’s military dictatorship (1973–1990) remained taboo.
Machuca’s examination of class, social structures and the state is part of a lengthy political filmmaking tradition in Chile yet one that was interrupted and sent overseas for an extended period. Although Chilean filmmakers such as Miguel Littin, Raúl Ruiz and Helvio Soto were at the forefront of an expansion of radical cinema across the continent in the 1960s and 1970s (the New Latin American Cinema movement), their work was curtailed by a military regime that not only exiled and executed left-leaning filmmakers but also removed historical memory of the nation’s cinema through the destruction of important archives. Peter B. Schumman points to the extraordinary situation in the late 1970s whereby, for the first time in cinema’s history ‘a national cinema has been forced to try to continue its life internationally because almost everyone working in film has been driven into exile’ (1979: 13). Patricio Guzman, Raoul Ruiz, Miguel Littin, Helvio Soto and other directors continued to provide critical analysis of their home country, often touching on the same time period as Machuca, but their locations overseas necessitated reflective, often introverted, consideration of their new position as an exile caught between past and present, home and afar. Machuca was the first major release emanating from within Chile’s national borders to explore the military coup and to suggest how a national public sphere may see itself and its past. This is not an unproblematic task and, as Luis Martín-Cabrera and Daniel Noemi Voionmaa (2007) have discussed, Machuca provoked fierce public and critical debate about the relevance the problems depicted in the film have for contemporary Chilean society. They suggest that the film itself is conscious of society’s difficulty of ‘seeing’ the events of the coup and understanding how they continue to have an impact on the present.
On the one hand, Machuca is able to address these issues due to the authenticity and weight that it given by the well-known factual basis of events within the film. Although Wood has stated emphatically that the film is not autobiographical, his film draws on moments that did occur. Wood was of a similar age to Gonzalo during 1973 and his school participated in the experiment whereby the catholic priests decided to mix their students with boys from the lower classes. The true-life nature of events and the trauma that ultimately unfolds means that comparisons can be drawn between Machuca and the testimonial literature that emerged in the wake of repressive military regimes across Latin America in the twentieth century. Each fictional account bears witness to painful situations that might otherwise be forgotten or overlooked. Within Machuca, the attention to detail in the audio and visual recreation of 1970s Chile – from the careful reproduction of costume, props and music as well as graffiti on walls, newspaper headlines and political slogans on placards – means that this testimony is recreated in vivid detail. Although many of the successful political films of the New Latin American Cinema movement, such as La Hora de los Hornos/The Hour of the Furnaces (Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas, 1968), Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol/Black God, White Devil (Glauber Rocha, 1964) and Memorias del subdesarollo/Memories of Underdevelopment (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, 1968), experimented with film style and narrative tendencies, Machuca returns to more conventional storytelling techniques (a linear narrative, continuity editing and lucid characterisation) in order to show its events in a coherent manner.
At the same time, Machuca purposefully eschews objectivity by filtering events through the eyes of children in a way that reminds us of the instability of obtaining a clear view. Within Machuca, the child’s gaze is the mechanism for positing the problem of ‘seeing’ events and so the scope of the film is continuously limited to the direct experience of the children. This use of the child’s view continues a trend within Latin American filmmaking that uses children as central characters to explore wider social and political issues. Following films such as Leonardo Favio’s Crónica de un Niño Solo/Chronicle of a Boy Alone (1964), Hector Babenco’s Pixote (1981) and Fernando Meirelles and Katie Lund’s Cidade de Deus/City of God (2002), the children’s innocence and youth is juxtaposed with the role of the adult oppressor and the abuse of power. When the coup does take place, these characters have no overview of the political mechanisms that are taking place at a national, regional and global level (the US support for the new regime for example). They are unaware of how their country is dramatically changing but instead experience highly personal moments such as the entry of soldiers into the school; the poignant moment during which Padre McEnroe denounces the new regime by devouring the sacred host and declaring god is no longer there; and the harrowing moment when Silvana is shot dead. Although highly traumatic, these events should not necessarily be read as a micro-representation of the situation as a whole. Instead, they point to the fragmented and destabilised situation that negated any possibility of a rational or balanced understanding of what occurred.
Frequently in Latin American films with child protagonists, marginalised children become a symbol of a society in which it is impossible to grow. This factor becomes all the more important at the end of Machuca when Gonzalo retreats into his comfortable middle-class world and Pedro and Silvana have exited the screen. Martín-Cabrera and Voionmaa rightly note that by the end of the film, Gonzalo has become a witness to state-sponsored violence and that the football field that he looks out onto in the final sequence is haunted by the ghosts of Chile’s violent past. Nonetheless his small, diminutive figure within the scene makes it clear that it will take time before he is old enough to understand what it is that he has witnessed.
The film premiered at a time (14 years after the end of the dictatorship) when Gonzalo would have reached adulthood and been at a suitable age to undertake this understanding; thus the reflective, looking back nature of Machuca. However, Woods evades any sense of presenting black and white facts and has stated in interview that ‘it’s a partial history, subjective, and it doesn’t pretend to be the official story’ (cited in Esther, 2005: 67). There is a constant use of nostalgic moments (Pedro and Gonzalo sharing a bike, reading comic books in bed, attending the birthday party of Gonzalo’s sister) and objects (lollipops, Adidas sneakers, black and white television sets) that present the familiar and remembered past in a way that calls for an emotional relationship with the film’s content. Gonzalo and Pedro’s loving consumption of the Lone Ranger comic books, their greedy scoffing of condensed milk cans, and dancing to the vibrant pop music of the time means that the chaos and suffering around them are mitigated and complicated by genuine enjoyment of their childhood state. In turn, the audience is asked to share in these mixed feelings and produce an emotional as much as an analytical reflection on the past. It is this quality that prevents any potential for a didactic political message within the film’s content.
Nonetheless, critical questions are raised. While Pedro’s racial heritage is not explicitly referred to within the film, his dark features were picked up by various Spanish language reviewers who described him as Indio (Indian/Indigenous). This aspect allowed them to make a comparison between the young friends and the conflicted but often reconciliatory relationship between cowboys and Indians in the comic books that the young boys adore. This in turn points to the uneasy relationship between not only left- and right-wing political factions in Chile at this time but also the hierarchies of class, race and family heritage left over from the country’s colonial era. It is telling that Gonzalo is given the most screen time within the film, and it very much appears to be his story, but it is Pedro, whose surname is Machuca, who becomes the namesake for the film. In this way, Machuca doesn’t completely avoid the tendency for Chilean culture to ignore its racially inscribed subjects, but does find a way to refocus attention on those who might otherwise go ‘unseen.’
The ongoing traces of these issues in contemporary society made the film particularly potent on its release, provoking much debate within cinemas and across Chile’s various press and other media. While the debates provoked by Machuca’s treatment of Chile’s past will never be conclusively resolved, the national and international presence of the film has allowed it to introduce an audiovisual reflection on a difficult period in history that demands audience engagement which is active and involved.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Chile, Spain, UK, France. Production Company: Wood Producciones. Director: Andrés Wood. Producers: Mamoun Hassan, Andrés Wood and Gerardo Herrero. Screenwriters: Roberto Brodsky, Mamoun Hassan and Andrés Wood. Editors: Fernando Pado, Soledad Salfate. Cinematographer: Miguel Ioann Littin Menz. Music: Miguel Miranda, José Miguel Tobar. Cast: Matias Quer (Gonzalo Infante), Ariel Mateluna (Pedro Machuca), Manuela Martelli (Silvana), Ernesto Malbran (Father McEnroe), Federico Luppi (Roberto Ochagavía).]
Julianne Burton, ‘The Camera as “Gun”: Two Decades of Culture and Resistance in Latin America’, Latin American Perspectives, 5:1, 1978, pp. 49–76.
John Esther, ‘Chile in the Time of the Generals: An interview with Andrés Wood’, Cineaste, Summer, 2005, p. 67.
John King, ‘Chilean Cinema in Revolution and Exile’, Michael T. Martin (ed.), New Latin American Cinema, Volume Two, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1997, pp. 397–419.
John King, Magical Reels: A History of Cinema in Latin America, London, Verso, 2000.
Luis Martín-Cabrera and Daniel Noemi Voionmaa, ‘Class conflict, state of exception and radical justice in Machuca by Andrés Wood’, Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies, 16:1, 2007, pp. 63–80.
Zuzana M. Pick, ‘Chilean Cinema in Exile, 1973– 1986’ Michael T. Martin (ed.) New Latin American Cinema, Volume Two, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1997, pp. 423–40.
Peter B. Schumann, ‘The Chilean Cinema in Exile’, Framework, 10, 1979, pp. 13–14.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.