Moppet Show 

Machuca's politics are buried under cute kids.

Why is it that so many highbrow art-house types blabber on and on about Hollywood's infantilization of cinema, yet they ooh and ahh at every new foreign movie about life as seen through the innocent eyes of a child? There's Cinema Paradiso, My Life as a Dog, and now the particularly egregious new entry in the genre, Machuca.

Set in Chile during the 1973 uprising that followed the death of President Salvador Allende, the movie deals with the social situation primarily in its last half-hour; the other hour and a half is devoted to the everyday life of young Gonzalo Infante (Matías Quer), a redheaded moppet who looks like a young Danny Bonaduce. Yes, he's being set up as a regular good little boy so that we'll be extra shocked when the violence hits home, but come on. War makes children cry, but you know what else does? Not getting candy. Having to do homework. Any task that's hard. Frankly, it's pretty easy to make a kid cry. Now, if the uprising were to make a grown man cry, then you'd have some impact. If it were to give us a little more information about the lead-up to the struggle, that'd be even better. Granted, that may not be the movie director Andrés Wood wanted to make, but then again, his movie isn't the one I want to see.

In fairness, Wood probably made Machuca primarily for a Chilean audience that knows all this history already. For them, perhaps, it's more interesting to see one individual's perspective, even if that person is a dopey-looking kid. Those interested in Chilean history will find a dearth of new information here, though. On the other hand, if you've ever found yourself saying "Awwww, what a cute little kid!" during a film, and cried when the kid got upset or something, this is up your alley.

Gonzalo attends St. Patrick's, an English-speaking school for boys, where the Catholics in charge harbor dangerous socialistic ideals, such as letting poor children attend the school at reduced or no cost. The poorer kids are darker-skinned, and naturally, enough of this forced integration in a racially stratified culture produces conflict. One boy who is especially picked on is newcomer Pedro Machuca (Ariel Mateluna), but he gives as good as he gets. Gonzalo is picked on not for racial reasons, but because he's small and looks like a dork; soon, he and Pedro are fast friends, united by their common foes.

Pedro lives in a crappy, rundown shack town on the outskirts of the city, and for money attends protest rallies with his uncle, where they sell flags -- communist or nationalist, depending on which crowd they're catering to. Gonzalo's family is much better off, but it comes at a price; his mother trades sex for groceries and other goods to an older wealthy man (Federico Luppi). On the plus side, Gonzalo's sister has a boyfriend (Tiago Correa) whose nunchuck skills would be the envy of Napoleon Dynamite.

And what movie about allegedly adorable moppets would be complete without the first love? Damn, some of these kids get started early. Gonzalo is smitten by Pedro's neighbor Silvana (Manuela Martelli), and eventually Pedro is too. But class loyalty trumps all, and when it comes down to a "them and us" conflict, friendship and love will be sorely tested. This conflict comes to the fore only toward the end, after you've suffered through the endless coming-of-age beats that you probably know so well from numerous other semiautobiographical films. It's funny how individual, personal stories end up falling into many of the same patterns when put on the big screen. No, wait ... not funny. Boring.

In the trailer for Machuca, which played some theaters far longer than the actual movie will, cheap laughs are wrung from a scene in which the stern-but-fair principal, Father McEnroe (Ernesto Malbran, in the film's best performance), asks Pedro his name and repeatedly asks him to say it louder. Pedro finally yells it, much to the titters of his classmates. In the film, McEnroe then congratulates him, adding "Make yourself heard, Machuca." If you don't think there's a symbolic meaning there that'll pay off later, you don't know your movies. But director Wood isn't likely to make himself heard -- whatever points he's trying to make get buried in the mawkishness of the formula in which he tells it. Violins play when the sad stuff happens. 'Nuff said.


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