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With: Matías Quer, Ariel Mateluna, Manuela Martelli, Ernesto Malbran
Written by: Roberto Brodsky, Mamoun Hassan, Andrés Wood
Directed by: Andrés Wood
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Spanish with English subtitles
Running Time: 115
Date: 02/24/2004

Machuca (2005)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Shady Politics

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Machuca on DVD (Region 2, PAL).

The coming-of-age film has become awfully common; any film in which pre-teen characters experience some kind of life-changing incident qualifies. Rob Reiner's Stand by Me (1986) is one beloved example, while Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959) remains the primer on the subject.

Most of us re-imagine our unreliable memories to suit us anyway, and so the opportunity to re-write a childhood in vivid, permanent pictures must be overwhelming.

Unfortunately, like the biopic genre, the coming-of-age film has fallen into a kind of template that allows filmmakers to cram both personal and imagined experiences into yet another formula.

Andrés Wood's Machuca is the latest example. It has moments of vivid clarity and power, mixed randomly with clunky samples of other coming-of-age films.

Machuca takes place in Chile during the brief 1973 socialist reign of President Allende. Well-to-do Gonzalo Infante (Matías Quer), with freckles, red hair and puffy, well-fed cheeks, attends a private school for the wealthy. As part of the school's new socialist program, several working-class students are also invited to attend. Feisty, clear-eyed Pedro Machuca (Ariel Mateluna) sits behind Gonzalo. When Gonzalo helps Pedro cheat on an English test, the boys become fast friends.

The film revels in its best moment when Gonzalo joins Pedro at his after-school job, selling flags at a left-wing rally, then turning around and selling different flags at an opposing, right-wing rally.

However, Wood also resorts to half-baked symbolism like Gonzalo's love for "Lone Ranger" comic books, which he receives in hardback gift editions, and which contain the first meeting of The Lone Ranger and Tonto. One character observes: "a white man and an Indian can't be friends!"

During the inevitable scenes in which the boys visit each other's homes, Wood softens the poverty at first, making it seem more earthy and personable than the cold, filthy rich. The film also introduces a romantic tingle between Gonzalo an older working-class girl (Manuella Martelli), but never really captures the magic of a first love, nor does the awkward match light any dramatic fires.

Indeed, Machuca reeks with upper-class guilt. This guilt hobbles Gonzalo, causing him to passively stand by as the world erupts around him.

If the entire film came from that one juvenile perspective, fine, but Machuca occasionally puts its political ideals on hold to deal with Gonzalo's personal problems, and vice-versa. It's incapable of juggling more than one ball at a time.

Machuca finally reveals that, no matter who is in charge, the rich will stay rich and the poor will stay poor. In the aftermath of the new regime, Gonzalo finally stands up to the school's bully, but we have no idea what he has learned from his unusual friendship with Pedro, if anything.

Ultimately, many of the movie's individual scenes may exist clearly in the filmmakers' childhood memories, and some of them are certainly affecting. But the film fails to re-direct them into a cinematic and emotional whole for the rest of us.

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