A Chilean Tragedy

in 26th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema

by Javier Porta Fouz

Something feels old in a good way about Machuca , the new feature by Chilean director Andrés Wood (Historias de fútbol – Soccer Stories). There was a time when Latin American cinema could address large audiences without the help (or the burden) of the newest television stars and the annoying advertisements every fifteen minutes in prime time (and also at 11 am in the morning). In Argentina, for example, it was possible to get an audience of more than a million people with films like Leonardo Favio’s Juan Moreira or Nazareno Cruz y el lobo. This two were auteur’s films but they were also profitable ones. This was possible at the beginning of the seventies. In Chile, an extraordinary and still challenging film like Raoul Ruiz’ Palomita Blanca could not only be seen by an “enlightened” minority. That was a time when filmmakers could work with intelligence without being considered automatically elitist.

Machuca is old in that way: the film believes in being in touch with its audience, as Adolfo Aristarain’s Roma (another of the competition films in the 26th Havana festival) also does. Machuca is the kind of ambitious popular film that is not automatically greeted warmly by us critics. That’s because it is a film whose focus is a group of teenagers -two young boys and a slightly older girl — but with a much larger background: the last days of the government of Salvador Allende. This kind of historical background alerts the suspicious minds of the critics. But Machuca is strong and intelligent enough to overcome almost every suspicion.

Pedro Machuca comes from a poor family but -by means of the integrationist policy of the government- enters a high class school. There, he will find a friend in Gonzalo Infante, the nerdish but good-hearted son of a bourgeois family falling apart. But there is another thing falling apart: the government of Allende, supported by big demonstrations and attacked not only by right-wing demonstrators but by darker actions as well. In these very intense days, Gonzalo and Pedro find their friendship and the love of Pedro’s cousin Silvana (Manuela Martelli, the amazing and energetic young actress of Gonzalo Justiniano’s Be-Happy). This kind of naive triangle is shown with a daring intensity by Wood, a director who believes in a strongly emotional cinema but not in an obvious one (and you can hear this in the never indulgent music that he chooses to put in the film).

If the teenagers are the ever-changing emotional core of the story, the adults are depicted in a subtle way, especially in the case of Gonzalo’s father, a tragic character in difficult days. But much more tragic days would come. The tragedy will reach the teenagers and Machuca ends with images and sounds of silence and desolation that hit hard, almost as hard as the real death of the cameraman in Patricio Guzmán La batalla de Chile (The Battle of Chile). It is not easy to find films as ambitious and daring as Machuca -a film much more worried about connection than about perfection. Audiences in Latin America should be able to see Machuca to aknowledge that it is possible to connect with a cinema made nearby but aimed at being universal. But if we consider that almost every country of the region receives a film diet that is made up almost entirely of Hollywood blockbusters and local films (if there are local films), it is possible that this film will not get a commercial release beyond Chile. Intelligent distributors should listen to Machuca ‘s call.

Javier Porta Fouz