‘No’ is a memorable film about the media’s power in times of struggle
Written by Pablo Larrain
Directed by Pablo Larrain
The name of Augusto Pinochet stirs up passions amongst Chileans till this day even though the general and former president’s dictatorial reign ended over 20 years ago. From 1973 to 1988 ten of thousands of dissidents and suspected opponents to the sate were executed. Some would disappear without a trace in the night, although it was never difficult to guess what fate had in store for the unfortunate souls. By nature of the country’s 1980 constitution and a great deal of international pressure, a historic referendum was held in 1988, the results of which favoured a transition to a more democratically inclined government apparatus, something the Chilean people had hoped for for years. Director Pablo Larrain’s latest, No, takes a look back at one specific angle of Pinochet’s fall from power: the media campaigns from the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ sides. The film was nominated in the Foreign Language category at the most recent Academy Awards.
It is 1988 and the Pinochet regime has a declared a nationwide referendum on its future: vote ‘yes’ for continued prosperity or ‘no’ for a regime change and, as the current power wielder would have everyone believe, destitute poverty, famine, communism and various other evils. Gael Garcia Bernal stars as Rene Saavedra, a marketing consultant whose recognized talents and success have him work freelance for various companies, including outside of his his country. Rene is invited to help out the ‘no’ campaign for a healthy salary. Unwilling to engage too fully in the political process, he refuses at first. Slowly yet surely, the gravity of the situation and the increasingly evident meaninglessness of his little comforts in life sway him to accept the task. Together with the talents of other artists and the political know how of those who seek change, Rene will be a part of one of the great political movements in Chile’s modern history.
It is clear from the opening scene, in which a series of white pages are turned with text offering audiences the story’s socio-political context, that No strives for a different cinematic translation of the historic event than is traditionally expected out of a movie of this ilk. In fact, the aesthetic qualities make it as far removed from a purely modern cinematic experience as possible. Director Larrain presents the film in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio for one thing, a definite rarity these days. Adding some further confusion in the early goings is that the picture quality is significantly worse than the average new release, intentionally so even. It essentially appears like the movie was shot on an old VHS tape from the era. Small wonder therefore if some of the viewers will go through a brief adjustment period period growing comfortable with the surprising style. It is difficult to discern what exactly is the reasoning behind this technique. A surface level reading could have one view the cinematography as suggesting a documentary vibe. Even if that is the intent, it comes across as more cosmetic than anything else, not to mention downright distracting for the first few minutes.
Director Larrain has a few other tricks up his sleeve, one of which does attenuate the initially off putting effect created by the visuals, the other having to do with the handling of the dialogue. First, the movie utilizes a large amount of archival footage for television broadcasts and any moments when Pinochet appears on screen. Whereas the appearance of archival footage in movies is often jarring, in No it fits right in because it looks like everything else in the movie. However distracting the aesthetic choices may be at first, the filmmakers deserve credit for finding a way to work a way around the usual issue related to the inclusion of vintage television reels, therefore making everything come together as a whole in the end. The editing involved in cobbling the dialogue together is also given an off kilter, if subtler touch than the cinematography, with back and forth exchanges of conversations extending beyond a single scene. A question is asked from one man to another at a restaurant and the answer is comes as they stand outside, without affecting the flow of the dialogue. It is an extremely effective technique in stressing how important the ‘now’ is in times of political upheaval. There is no such thing as a bad time to strive for change.
More importantly however, beneath all of the directorial flourishes, is a taught story about two sides in an election campaign putting minds and money towards advertising and propaganda. Despite that No occasionally reminds audiences about the real and present dangers involved in siding with the opposition in a land governed by dictatorship, the movie is primarily concerned with with the evolution of the two marketing campaigns. Each side is awarded 15 minutes on national television each night for the month leading up to the referendum. With the pressures of limited time, Rena and his colleagues work from the ground up: brainstorming, sales pitch, development, re-conceptualizing the original ideas after bumps in the road and of course the finished products. These steps in of themselves make for a fascinating aspect because further nightly campaign episodes will then respond, directly or otherwise, to what the opposition aired the previous day. Had No solely delved on the political, social and economic turmoil of the period, it still might have been a fine movie, but the marketing scheme angle provides a fresh vantage point from which the concerns of the oppressed and those in power are communicated.
Anchoring the piece is notable Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal. Bernal has a true magnetism about him, making him credible in just about any role imaginable. In No he is his usual excellent self as the marketing guru who has come back to Chile after working abroad for several years. His absence has resulted in a disconnect with the realities of his native country, hence the initially comical and shamefully out of touch first video his team concocts that even insults one of the party members. His character’s transformation from the start of the film to its conclusion only seems familiar on paper. Bernal has the charisma and range to take minimal information on the page and create an individual the viewers can genuinely root and care for. By no means his most challenging role, it nonetheless stands to reason he is the heart of soul of the picture.
Some will undoubtedly warm up to No more easily than others for the aforementioned directorial decisions. Its technical ambitions go against the grain with varying degrees of success, but as in most cases, the story and characters matter more than anything. In this respect, No is an engaging account of the media’s role in the historic end to Augusto Pinochet’s reign in Chile.