Directed by Pablo Larrain
Written by Pedrp Peirano
Starring Gael Garcia Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Nestor Cantillana, Antonia Zegers
With what by all accounts one of the most divisive, media saturated political campaigns in history unfolding in North America Pablo Larrain’s media satire No seems to have arrived at an opportune time, even if his fascinating study is pitched back twenty-five years and 4,000 miles south down in Chile, as the pressure of the international community forces the repressive government to conduct a referendum on the sanction of the bloodied ruling caste or to open up the floodgates to democratic change. Winner of the Cannes directors fortnight Art cinema award and Chile’s official Foreign Language entry to the 2012 Oscars No is a persuasive political drama, where the stakes for the insurgants are for more terminal than simply winning or losing.
René Saavedra (Gael) is one of Chile’s leading ‘Mad Men’ an advertising executive with a keen grasp of the embriyonic new models and methods of mental control profligated by the advertising industry, transferring their semiotic seduction from the consumerist pursuit of goods to the political beast for an imminent, crucial referendum. Chile has been under the brutal regime of Augusto Pinochet since he seized the reigns of power in a CIA funded coup back in 1973, the nauseating subsequent years seeing tens of thousands of ‘dissidents’ and ‘terrorists’ – effectively anyone left of centre or even remotely critical of the state – disappeared or brutally tortured, the populace still in mortal fear of agitating or protesting in the name of civil rights or democracy. Gael’s ex-wife Veronica (Antonia Zegers) with whom he agreeably shares a joint custody of their young son is still something of a firebrand radical, attending demonstrations and getting into trouble, Gael a more pragmatic soul who believes in organic change of a more gentle sort, so when international pressure strongarms the government into holding a countrywide referendum on either retaining the status quo – Yes – or rejecting the regime in favour of a rainbow alliance of competing parties – No – the stage is set for a crucial political battle through the TV sets of the entire Chilean populace.
This striking manifesto takes a while to gain traction, but as the momentum builds between the rival camps No becomes quite a revolutionary film, a compelling historical case study of a crucial episode in the thawing period of the later Cold War. When the ruling junta thugs begin to detect that victory isn’t certain they resort to more intimidatory tactics, levering fear onto the fate of the oppositions children and family, not daring to execute them so obviously due to the eyes of the world gazing down from the lofty perches of Washington and the UN. The archive footage of what I assume was the real advertising campaigns of the era are quite remarkable, a historical fly trapped in audiovisual amber, the fascists painting anyone even mildly critical of the regime and its horrific history as terrorist maniacs which one can’t help but reflect upon on the identical process of the right wing press throughout the so called civilised world, as some things have evidently never changed from Santiago to Seattle to Occupy.
One particularly exquisite moment is when one of Pinchoet’s goons complains that all the creatives, the academics and designers are either ‘supporting those bastards’ or have already been executed by the regime, leaving them pathetically mirroring Saavedra’s dexterous campaign, inverting his strategies from their own redundant ideology, with a desperate gambit of striking fear into the electorate. Wider thought-provoking issues as also raised, with many of the Lefts disgust at the almost wholesale ignoring of the human rights abuses utilised by the No campaign, sweeping fifteen years of oppression and massacre under the carpet, with Saavedra asserting that the truth might just be too painful and alternate models of persuasion must be used if they are too succeed.
The ugly, digital handheld photography which initially jars actually comes to make sense as the film proceeds, the grain stricken footage echoing the adveritising footage from 1987 with its blurry visual texture, these are frequently hilarious in both their primitive methods at humour and persuasion, coupled with a certain realisation that if you lavished these instruments with higher production values then they really aren’t any different from the same political diatribes and consumerist campaigns we are indoctrinated with today. Although No lacks the acidic bite of say Ace In The Hole it is a very persuasive portrait of an important political victory, idealism trumped by pragmatism in a newly evolving media environment, a solid conclusion to Larrain’s so-called Chilean trilogy along with Tony Monero and Post Mortem, a worthy potential winner of next February’s golden gong although I suspect Haneke may just pip it past the post with his devastating Amour.