Class, Coups and Cordones

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Review of 'Machuca', director André Wood

Chile is still deeply divided by the events of 1973. Machuca is set on the eve of Augusto Pinochet's CIA-backed military coup against the Salvador Allende government. It is the first film about this period to be made by a director who remained in Chile after 1973 and lived through the Pinochet dictatorship.

Machuca centres around three children. Machuca and Silvana are from the slums, and the story is seen through the eyes of Gonzalo, who is part of the middle classes. Machuca and Gonzalo are thrown into each other's spheres when the liberal priest at Gonzalo's exclusive school allows children from the slums to study there. The boys are drawn together by mutual fascination and tentatively form a friendship.

Events at the school closely mirror the political situation in Chile as a whole. Social changes under Allende encourage seemingly radical measures that attempt to equalise class differences. It becomes the site of a debate that ruptures between the classes as tension grows and then the school is overrun by the military in the days after the coup. The children are sent back into their class-ordained corners of society.

While the children are more witness to the events than participants in them, they are still forced to form views and respond to the world around them. Through their eyes, the politics and narrative are fragmented, as is their understanding of what is going on. Wood has said about this, 'The worst sin would have been trying to tell it all. That is why, in Machuca, we have limited ourselves to what the children wanted to show us.'

This is a film primarily about class rather than about drawing out the politics of what happened in 1973. For those of us who are not familiar with those politics, parts of the film go unexplained. Why does Father McEnroe put himself on the line in allowing poor children into his school? What is the source of hatred so great that it gives way to fascism in sections of the middle class?

The answers to these questions are hinted at where we are given glimpses of the pro- and anti-government street marches, graffiti around Santiago and snippets of conversation. Machuca definitely gives more of a snapshot about how the particular events play themselves out in the lives of the children than it explores the revolution and counter-revolution in detail.

We are left with a deep and palpable sense of the class hatred that gained momentum in the lead-up to the coup. Battle lines are drawn and the film follows how the people of Santiago are increasingly pulled, or forced, to opposing sides of the class divide. It successfully conveys a taste of the horror and the violence that characterised the Pinochet dictatorship.

The film has been met with anger and emotion in Chile. Wood has been unapologetic about the way he has represented the coup - something that has been impossible for over three decades in Chilean cinema. For that reason, we must not underestimate its social and political importance.

Release date: 6 May