A new Chilean film that touches down in urban/suburban Santiago mere days before the September 11, 1973, coup d’état that murdered Salvador Allende and placed Pinochet into bloodletting power, Machuca is nevertheless an oddly tame affair. Director-co-writer Andrés Wood says he consciously relied on his own childhood memories, but the film whammies, forecasts, and simplifies as if it’d been born in a Sundance screenwriting lab. Standing numbly at center stage is Wood’s stand-in, Gonzalo (Matías Quer), a blond, picked-on bourgeois schoolboy far less aware of his country’s street protest upheavals than of his mother’s blithely indiscreet infidelities. Soon enough he links up with Pedro (Ariel Mateluna), a shantytown kid of native extraction, and the two wade through the historical moment’s political tensions. Selling it to the cheap seats, Wood keeps the dynamics Ron Howard-iconic: The upper-middle-class families are vain and arrogant gargoyles, the poor are lively and soulful über-peasants. As if we’re in danger of missing something, Gonzalo has an appetite for The Lone Ranger comics. (“White men and Indians are never friends!” someone yelps. “Sure they are!” is the reply, summing up the film’s philosophy.) Every scene leads up to a class-war exclamation point. Given this particular social storm, attaining a realist texture would’ve been a substantial achievement; Wood settles for clichés and spotlighting. Only in a bitter mid-Mass community debate, and in an outrageous street march scene (Gonzalo’s pink-skirt-suited Playgirl sits in a Buick’s window, clanks a frying pan, and screams anti-Communist cant), does the pre-junta fervor reach an inspired pitch.
At the three-quarters mark, the “insurrection of the bourgeoisie” finally hits—glimpsed by Gonzalo as smoke in the distance—and Wood ably finds a handful of chilling passages and at least one image that’s worth holding on to: a post-execution tableau of wrecked family, smoking ruins, and poised soldiers. But Machuca is still a half-measure. Wood is fastidious about period set design, but not much else; rather than burning with experience, the film feels opportunistic. In a country decisively torn as so many have been between the haves and have-nots, Wood’s autobiographical template isn’t very engaging; Gonzalo is little more than a mute spectator throughout, and Quer is a chubby mope. Even amid the military crackdown, Wood’s plot mechanics are formulaic; someone’ll take a bullet, and you knew in the first half-hour who it would be. In the end, Machuca (the film named after Pedro and his Syd Field-doomed family) feels dismayingly solipsistic—Wood seems to think that of all the tragedies and dramas that the Pinochet putsch produced, none are as profound as his own, riding home from the war zone on his bike, plagued by a guilty memory.