Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Directed by Pablo Larrain
Feb 15, 2013
Most films about social movements and/or young revolutionaries are serious affairs, the main goal of which is to accurately depict the gravity of the situation in a "realistic" manner. Unless you're a musical (think Hair or Rent) or a quirky Hollywood exercise (Forrest Gump is a prime example), this tactic is probably the most readily available to a director, and also conveniently accessible to an audience. In order for a spectator to engage with the protagonist in said environment, there needs to be a proper background drawn of the situation's dire straits. As such, these films function like any other genre flick with interchangeable parts; oppressed he/she is tired of being forced to do X/Y and therefore decides to take action in their own/a group's hands to change the situation. Depicting the Chilean dictatorship and regime of Augusto Pinochet is prime fodder for this genre, especially for non-Chilean audiences whose memory of the horrific events that transpired is probably slight at best. Pablo Larrain's fantastic new film No depicts a very specific part of the aforementioned time period, but does so in a spectacularly self-reflexive way, making it a delightful entry into a genre that needs a bit of shaking up.
Gael Garcia Bernal plays Rerne Saavedra, an advertising exec who spends his days pitching jingles and commercials with little to challenge him except for his own creative ambitions. Himself the child of a Chilean dissident, Rene is recruited one day by the campaign managers of the candidate opposing Pinochet in a mandatory election cycle, the candidate, a "plebiscite," not given much of a chance of winning but going through the process nonetheless. Known for making light-hearted pop jingles, Rene presents his ideas to the campaign teams and, understandably, encounters resistance for the tone of the work. But Rene is an ad man, the kind of smooth-talking hipster unknown to many in the office (think a South American Don Draper circa early 1980s). He keenly understands the persuasive power of advertising and knows that though his contemporaries may be criticizing his style, in actuality they hope to accomplish the same things. Those working for the plebiscite candidate know that their purpose is more symbolic than actual, with the understood goal being to inspire people to become participants in the democratic process and to illuminate the issues rather than pushing for a specific candidate. This is where Rene comes in.
Modeled after a soft-drink (aptly titled Free), No becomes the official campaign for the plebiscite candidate. The No campaign consists almost exclusively as a month of 30-minute commercials airing in a dead-zone of after-hours television time. Yet despite this temporal relegation (or perhaps because of it) the campaign begins to take hold; its populist leanings inspire a whole nation of downtrodden citizens to stand up for themselves. Because the campaign is built around an idea rather than a person, the people can concurrently rally around what they don't want (Pinochet in office) and what they do want (social progress and economic prosperity).
Larrain astutely models the film's tone and visual style after that of the campaign: No features exuberant young people enjoying life's modern choices, engaged in all forms of frivolity, all the while singing a catchy pop song. To accomplish this tonal affability Larrain creates a heavily stylized film. For visual consistency, he intersperses the original campaign footage seamlessly with his newly created footage by utilizing rebuilt U-matic video cameras allowing him to obscure the distinction between new and old footage. The result is a film that looks decidedly unmodern, but it works by creating a wholly immersive atmosphere. Pedro Peirano's whip-smart script accomplishes the film's tonal accessibility by combating the environment's tangible seriousness through a series of clever puns and visual tricks.
Though the film is undoubtedly about the campaign to bring down an iron-fisted dictator, Rene becomes somewhat of an obligatory protagonist around whom the audience can relate. Larrain filters the action through Rene's choices, and it is in these moments when the film strays most off course, for here the tone undulates accordingly with Rene's prominence in the narrative structure. As the story becomes about Rene's personal history the film struggles to maintain its lightheartedness. When Rene is engaged in all things campaign cycle the film is at its best: light, wickedly smart, and astutely self-aware. Thankfully, this proves to be the majority of the time.
As the film inexorably marches towards its satisfying finale, it becomes increasingly clear that the singular vision Larrain achieves stems from his desire to depict a hopeful precursor of Chile's future rather than a dour retreading of its past. Modeling its tone after the original campaign is an inspired choice, and the ability to showcase a country's historical shift vis-a-vis an advertising platform os equally astounding. The Academy voted yes for No, making it Chile's first film ever to receive a nomination for best foreign language film. The recognition is well deserved. (sonyclassics.com/no)
Author rating: 7/10
Average reader rating: 5/10
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