Before there was 9/11, there was 9/11—the date of the Chilean military coup in 1973, which had an even greater proportional impact on that small country. Besides many deaths (including that of President Salvador Allende), the entire nation was divided by class and skin color—privileged white European colonial descendants ruling over poor natives—for the next 17 oppressive years. Though it's set in the months before the Pinochet junta took power, Machuca isn't a strictly political film. Events unfold from the perspective of 11-year-old Gonzalo (Matias Quer), a watchful bourgeois kid who attends a uniformed boys' school led by a progressive priest. Father McEnroe decides to integrate the place with a half-dozen shantytown kids, including Pedro (Ariel Mateluna), whose native-sounding surname, Machuca, immediately signals his station like the holes in his clothing. Machuca is about the two boys' unlikely friendship across a line that Gonzalo never considered and Pedro takes for granted.
With his own parents' marriage in trouble, Gonzalo finds much to like in the warmth and spontaneity of Pedro, his uncle, and, especially, his kissing cousin Silvana (Manuela Martelli), who's about 13 and knows a thing or two about getting boys to like her. Together, they sell cigarettes and little flags for Santiago's many protest marches—Communist, nationalist, socialist, etc.—to profit from each faction. Food lines are everywhere, and the black market is thriving, so the three kids are happiest when they can find a couple cans of sweet, condensed milk, open them with a rock, and kiss the white dew from one another's dewy lips. ("Strawberry face" is the nickname they give their redheaded friend.) But director Andrés Wood doesn't hide the poverty and growing social desperation. Waiting for his mother to finish a tryst with a rich older man (who supplies her with chic outfits and her family with groceries), Gonzalo looks down to see yelping dogs being harvested on the street for food. Soon the protests turn violent and the graffiti hints of civil war. Gonzalo and Pedro's friendship also feels the strain—a microcosm for Chilean society about to come apart.
The film's final dedication suggests its basis in real-life events, and the lovely period details certainly feel that way. Eccentric but idealistic, Father McEnroe (Ernestro Malbran) lectures his kids on social conscience, then cheats them all in a schoolyard sprint. As in nouvelle vague films, the kids are solemn and wise (certainly more so than in most American movies), but they're still allowed to be kids. New Adidas sneakers are treated like the treasure they are. Gonzalo claims not to want the Lone Ranger comic books his mother's lover gives him as bribes (in which our hero is saved by Tonto, incidentally), but reads them avidly when away from adult eyes. Though placed so specifically in past history and social circumstance, Machuca is remarkably unsentimental about the fate of the two friends. Childhood has to end, it tells us, and often with a shock. (NR)