If this weren't a mish mosh of two genres, it might have been a whole lot more effective. As a coming of age story in which a kid from the rich and pampered part of town makes friends with a less fortunate peer and gets his first real kiss from a taunting beauty given to sexual experimentation, it had lots of potential. Set within the political turmoil of late 1973 Chile, at a time when Colonel Pinochet's men murdered the more humanist Salvador Allende in a coup d'etat, when the interests of the boys and their families were deeply affected by the sociological turbulence, and you have the possibilities for a starkly gripping piece of film.
But, when a documentary recreation of the street fights, protest marches and the military takeover takes center stage, you not only destroy the narrative flow of the intimate drama, you reveal that you're either swept away by the historical events or it's the real agenda behind the movie. Either way, director Andres Wood pretty well sinks the dramatic potentials of his fascinating characters.
Another tipoff to an agenda lies in the title, "Machuca," the family name of Gonzalo's friend, the unprivileged and poor Pedro (Ariel Mateluna). The part of Gonzalo (Matias Quer) is the central one so either his family name, Infante, didn't sound like a promising title or, again, the character from the poor side of the tracks better fits the political message-making. But the imbalance seriously impairs dramatic purposes and a wider potential audience.
The political divide is painted in vivid but confusing colors. Gonzalo's mother Maria (Aline Kuppenheim) adores her son, the chubby student, while cheating on her husband Patricio (Francisco Kings - an almost spooky resemblance to Jeremy Irons). He either doesn't know about her betrayal or is just accepting it with stoic disregard -- at least until it's thrown in his face. Along with Gonzalo's sister Lucy (Gabriela Medina), this is a family that tends to accept the state of affairs and has little regard for the disparities in the fortunes of the lesser class. They just don't have much to do with that part of Santiago.
Interesting is the way the impressionable Gonzalo readily joins the Machuca kin in hawking flags. To the fascistic insurrectionists, they sell their banner, then have no difficulty in switching side's marchers in order to sell more. It seems that capitalism overrides political interests, another idea that feeds into the confusion of the times.
However mercenary the politics, it's all new and exciting to Gonzalo, who joins in for all he's worth. When things go from sloganeering to the real dangers of a coup, however, it affects the school and the parents get directly involved. While the rich faction who pay stiff tuitions largely disagree with the policy of accepting poor students unable to pay for the same education, the effects of the takeover seem to make losers of everyone. Revolutionary changes are unclear in terms of who would benefit and which demographic group stands most to lose. It's not a simple issue to explain.
Outside the family circle, it's Father McEnroe who is most affected by the new militant policies, destroying his humanist-socialistic visions of education and bringing him to deny communion to his bourgeois congregation.
There are certainly intriguing themes here, but the focus on too much, in the end, diminishes what a pure storytelling approach might have made it. The casting is up to the material though I can't say Matias Quer as the purely reactive central character did much to advance the attributes of the film or a sympathetic reaction.