Chile, 1973. Salvador Allende has been in power for less than three years but his eagerness to reform Chilean society has hit the buffers with galloping inflation and a food shortage. The fascist gangrene is taking hold of large swathes of the Chilean middle-class while in Washington, Kissinger and Nixon are plotting Allende's downfall. The Infante family, like many Chilean families, are split down the middle - Patricio, the father (Francisco Reyes) is a supporter of Allende whereas his wife, María (Aline Küppenheim) is worried about the effects of socialism on her life. The young Gonzalo (Matías Quer) finds the politics of it all too complex to keep up with. Changes are afoot at his school too as the director, Father McEnroe (Ernesto Malbran), has started to change the school's exclusive and private status by accepting a clutch of students from the local shanty town. The introverted Gonzalo strikes up an enduring friendship with one of the incomers, Pedro (Ariel Mateluna), much to the dislike of his other schoolmates...
Despite being given a very limited release in the UK, Machuca has been the most successful film to come out of Chile as well as the first to deal with the events of the 11th of September 1973. Drawing heavily from his own childhood experiences, Andrés Wood has created an intimate timepiece which manages to take a step back from its political message and lets the characters and the events talk for themselves. The recounting of the story through the eyes of Gonzalo may bear obvious parallels with Truffaut, Louis Malle's Au Revoir Les Enfants or even Weir's Dead Poets Society, but Wood manages to control his vision with sufficient dexterity to allow it to come to fruition, in large part thanks to the young, inexperienced cast who create a convincing group of haves and have-nots on the cusp of adolescence.
The spirit of the early 70s is also successfully captured in the cinematography with extensive use of filters and grain to tinge some of the scenes along with truely awful 70s fashion and haircuts. The use of colour is also very symbolic throughout the film - keen viewers will notice how the palette is inexorably dulled as the film progresses. However, don't expect the kinetic fury that has become the trademark of many South-American directors' - Wood can get flashy when the need arises but chooses a middle path somewhere between the exhuberance of Iñárritu and the pensive stillness of Reygadas. A few scenes could be argued to exhibit an excessive display of emotion and Wood does sometimes seem to have trouble resisting certain heart-string tugs but, for a relatively young director, Machuca shows a clear maturity in avoiding the obvious (the US' involvment is barely noted in the film) and a talent for vivid direction. Although not a complete success, Machuca does manage to be political without being preachy which in itself is no mean feat.
The OAR of 1.85:1 is respected in a crisp anamorphic transfer. The film's natural palette are voluntarily dulled and often exaggerated to reflect the character's emotions which works very well. Natural grain is evident on close inspection but globally this is another good transfer from AE. The beautiful soundtrack comes out well in the 5.1 mix though surround effects are seldom used. The subtitles are removable and I didn't notice any mistakes.
There is only one major extra in the shape of a 30 minute long interview with the director. Wood speaks relatively good English but is not always easy to understand. He talks about his personal school experiences as well as the reception the film received in Chile and abroad. Annoyingly, the camera operator has left the autofocus on meaning that the image constantly shift in focus between Wood and the books behind him but besides that annoying glitch, this extra is well produced and a useful expansion on the film.
The usual trailer is included - possibly the most spoiler-laden trailed I've ever seen so beware! - as well as brief biography of Wood.
Although Machuca may not be a perfect film, it is without doubt a moving piece of cinema which effectively mixes coming of age with politics. AE have put together a decent release with a good extra.