Pedro Machuca is a 13-year-old boy living in the slums of Santiago, Chile, in 1973 when he is chosen to attend a tony private boys' school, a result of the liberalized policies of the country's president, Salvador Allende. While at St. Patrick's, Pedro (Ariel Mateluna) befriends one of the rich kids, a plump, freckle-faced bookworm named Gonzalo Infante (Matias Quer). Against the backdrop of the impending military coup led by Augusto Pinochet, the two boys pursue an unlikely friendship that opens both their eyes, Pedro to the subtle luxuries of bourgeois life and Gonzalo to an underclass that had heretofore been invisible.

Director and co-writer Andres Wood has created a lush, passionate portrait of that roiling era in this largely autobiographical memoir; from its sepia-toned palette to its often surprisingly contradictory characters, "Machuca" is that rare film that merges the personal and political without sacrificing restraint or intellectual honesty. The two lead performances are flawless, as is Aline Kuppenheim's portrayal of Gonzalo's beautiful, feckless mother and Manuela Martelli as Pedro's temperamental cousin, on whom Gonzalo develops a crush.

But what makes "Machuca" both engaging entertainment and a great work of art is Wood's attention to detail in a story that is told from the perspective of a privileged kid who comprehends the events swirling around him primarily through Lone Ranger comics. There are some resonant, deeply erotic scenes involving a can of condensed milk that wordlessly convey the power of Gonzalo's education, both political and sentimental.

-- Ann Hornaday