David Broder reviews Machuca
Machuca is a Chilean film, on limited release in the UK, therefore I’ll depart with convention and tell you what happens at the end.
But you know already, because this film depicts the 1973 downfall of Salvador Allende’s leftist government. Told from the perspective of an upper-middle class boy, Gonzalo, who attends a Catholic school in Santiago, it portrays a society riven by a class division, between those who live in the capital’s shanty towns and the middle class who fiercely resist Allende’s social reforms.
The film begins with the introduction of working class children into Gonzalo’s class — a government effort to bridge the massive disparity of opportunity between Chilean children. One of these boys, Pedro Machuca, befriends Gonzalo who begins to become aware of the terrible conditions in which the majority lives. Although another of the kids in Pedro Machuca’s district refers to Gonzalo as “snob”, it seems as if he is accepted — the social barrier between children of different backgrounds has been broken down by Allende’s egalitarian reforms.
This situation can only be short lived — the parents who pay to send their children to the school object to the “Marxism” of the priests. They think it is wrong that they should pay for the education of the children whom they look down on. Gonzalo’s mother protests at fascist rallies and the family even consider escaping to Italy to avoid losing their great wealth.
When the crisis which brings a military junta to power comes, and the new regime rounds up communist sympathisers, Gonzalo resorts to a naked act of bourgeois self-preservation. As the army shove workers into trucks (later to be slaughtered in the national football stadium), and even kill a young girl, Gonzalo is accosted by a soldier. Terrified of being lumped in with the left-wingers, he shouts “look at me!” — he knows that his expensive clothes are enough proof that his family is allied to the new military regime.
When Gonzalo returns to school, the priests have been replaced by military officials, the boys’ long hair is shaved off, and children with leftist or working class parents have been expelled. While the film concentrates on depicting the grim spectacle of a regime which installs its armed forces in every sphere of life and murders children, it is also oddly sympathetic towards the priesthood.
The director, Andrés Wood, was criticised by the New York Times for making it clear that his sympathies lie with Allende. But he seems far closer to the clergy. Allende’s leftist government is shown as causing economic chaos, while the priesthood works quietly away at improving social harmony and breaking down the class divide. A more effective criticism of Allende would have been to show his support for Cuba and admiration of Stalin, “symbol of peace and construction, flagship of the revolution, of creative execution, of human feeling expanded until its plenitude”.
As a matter of historical fact the 1973-1990 military junta led by Pinochet enjoyed the backing of not only the Chilean middle class, but also sections of the Chilean church, an organisation widely credited as a democratic force in the nation. In 1999 the Vatican tried to free Pinochet from British custody.
Another flaw in the film is the absence of any depiction of the heavy role of US imperialism in the coup. Indeed, so abhorrent was the USA’s support for Pinochet’s coup that even Colin Powell felt obliged to apologize in 2003! The USA’s attitude at the time was voiced by Kissinger: “I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves”.
Machuca is an engaging and emotive film, it has been skilfully directed and shot in an evocative setting. None of this excuses the bankruptcy of its political message. Its refusal to criticise the church or the US government means that its depiction of the 1973 crisis is wholly unsatisfactory.