Coming-of-age story set against the fall of the socialist Allende government in Chile in 1973 effectively uses a school experiment to provide a melancholy look at the failure of a democratic society free from class divisions. Accomplished third feature from Chilean director Andres Wood stands a strong chance of breaking beyond Spanish-language markets.

A coming-of-age story set against the fall of the socialist Allende government and the installation of the military junta in Chile in 1973, “Machuca” effectively uses a school experiment to provide a melancholy look at the failure of a democratic society free from class divisions. Richly human in focus, the drama steadily cranks up its political and emotional charge, poignantly viewing its themes through the eyes of two 11-year-old boys. Accomplished third feature from Chilean director Andres Wood stands a strong chance of breaking beyond Spanish-language markets into general arthouse situations.

One of Chile’s most successful young filmmakers, NYU-trained Wood’s previous features “Football Stories” and “Loco Fever” displayed strong story sense, unforced humor, an incisive grasp of character and robust visual command. While it could do with minor tightening of the final stretch, “Machuca” shows further refinement of those talents in a story with greater dramatic weight.

Protagonists are two boys from opposite worlds: Gonzalo Infante (Matias Quer), is a shy kid from a well-heeled family in an upscale Santiago suburb, while Pedro Machuca (Ariel Mateluna) and his family live below the poverty line in a humble shantytown a few blocks away. In a bid to foster mutual respect and tolerance between boys from different backgrounds, liberal-minded priest Father McEnroe (Ernesto Malbran) admits Pedro and four other underprivileged kids to the exclusive St. Patrick’s English School he heads.

While most of the rich kids in their crisp uniforms resent the shabbily outfitted new arrivals getting a free ride, Gonzalo is drawn to feisty Pedro, who refuses to be intimidated by the school bullies. Gonzalo accompanies Pedro one afternoon with Pedro’s uncle (Alejandro Trejo) and slightly older teenage cousin Silvana (Manuela Martelli) as they hawk cigarettes from their truck. Seizing the commercial opportunities in political ferment, they sell nationalist flags to right-wing political protesters in one neighborhood and Communist flags to leftist demonstrators in another.

Gonzalo’s mother (Aline Kuppenheim) is having an affair with a wealthy Argentinian (Federico Luppi). Her comfortable embrace of capitalist values is increasingly distanced from the more moderate views of her husband (Francisco Reyes), who admits that “Socialism is good for Chile, just not good for us.” Feeling alone within his own family, Gonzalo is drawn to the warmth of Pedro’s. He also develops a crush on Silvana, who teases him about being a privileged snob.

As political tensions escalate within the country, the cracks begin to show in Father McEnroe’s idealistic experiment. The school farm run by the students is a failure and several wealthy parents are increasingly hostile to their sons mixing with poor kids. When Gonzalo’s mother clashes with Silvana during an anti-Communist street protest, the irreconcilable differences between Gonzalo and Pedro become harder to ignore.

Written by Roberto Brodsky, U.K. producer Mamoun Hassan and Wood, the drama is smoothly developed from the light touch of its early sequences with their insightful depiction of the joyful immediacy of childhood friendship, to the darkening mood as Gonzalo, purely by circumstance, becomes a target for Pedro and Silvana’s feelings of betrayal.

The final chapters pack considerable punch as the coup d’etat brings about Father McEnroe’s removal from office and replacement by a strict military headmaster. Wrapup could be more economical, however. Despite this slight overextension, Wood directs with a muscular energy that keeps the drama engrossing.

Performances across the board are strong, especially the appealing, natural young leads. Quer conveys the quietly introspective, questioning nature and incipient political awakening of a kid from a cushy background experiencing real friendship for the first time; Mateluna’s intense gaze expressively reveals the indomitable title character’s backbone and brooding sense of the injustice around him; and Martelli balances Silvana’s sweet side with her sassy harder edges.

While there’s no equal here for the coastal Patagonia locations of Wood’s “Loco Fever,” the polished production is crisply shot, gradually bleeding out much of the color as the military regime seizes power. Evocative period feel is enhanced by a lively ’70s-flavored Latino score.

Machuca

Chile-Spain-U.K.-France

Production

An Andres Wood Producciones (Chile), Tornasol Films (Spain), Mamoun Hassan (U.K.), Paraiso (France) production in association with Chilefilms, with participation of Canal Plus Spain, Television Espanola. (International sales: Latido/Latin Beat, Madrid.) Produced by Gerardo Herrero, Mamoun Hassan, Andres Wood. Directed by Andres Wood. Screenplay, Roberto Brodsky, Mamoun Hassan, Wood.

Crew

Camera (color), Miguel J. Littin; editor, Fernando Pardo; music, Miguel Angel Miranda, Jose Miguel Tobar; production designer, Rodrigo Bazaes; costume designer, Maya Mora; sound (Dolby Digital), Marcos Maldasky, Miguel Hormazabal; associate producers, Nathalie Trafford, Juan Carlos Arriagada, Patricio Pereira; casting, Carlos Johnson. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Directors Fortnight), May 21, 2004. Running time: 121 MIN.

With

Gonzalo Infante - Matias Quer Pedro Machuca - Ariel Mateluna Silvana - Manuela Martelli Maria Luisa - Aline Kuppenheim Roberto Ochagavia - Federico Luppi Father McEnroe - Ernesto Malbran Juana - Tamara Acosta Patricio Infante - Francisco Reyes Willi - Alejandro Trejo
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more