Marketing is often derided as one of the great evils of modern life, but even the advertising weenies can play the part of hero. One such example was a 1988 special election in Chile, a referendum on the rule of U.S.-installed dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet. It was a simple yes or no vote, with a “Yes” giving Pinochet eight more years in office, and a “No” calling for fresh presidential elections. The General, assuming victory would be assured, saw this nascent stab at democracy as a way to achieve international legitimacy. Had it not been for some brave ad men who came up with a winning campaign to mobilize a scared, beaten-down public to action, he might have been right.
Pablo Larraín’s No tells the story of this campaign, and it arrives in the Bay area on the heels of nabbing a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination. It’s a very good movie, featuring a terrific performance by Gael García Bernal (Babel, The Motorcycle Diaries) and a clever visual style that uses vintage equipment to deliver an image that looks like it was shot in the mid-1980s. But that same visual technique also works against No, shrinking the movie down when a grander scope would have been more appropriate.
Bernal stars as Rene, a young hotshot at a Chilean advertising agency who’s approached by José Tomás Urrutia (Luis Gnecco), the head of a group hoping to oust Pinochet. For the month leading up to the vote, both Pinochet and the opposition will get 15 minutes of airtime per day to make their case to the nation on state-run TV. Urrutia and his group need help with their messaging, and Rene takes the gig against the wishes of his boss (Alfredo Castro), who happens to be working for the Pinochet side.
Rene initially mixes awkwardly with Urrutia’s group, panning their prepared propaganda pieces as too downbeat. If they want to win, he advises, they’ll have to drop the constant reminders of the evils of Pinochet (his regime arrested, tortured and “disappeared” thousands of Chileans) and start selling the people on something fresh and positive. The opposition can’t see past their anger at first, but they slowly come around to Rene’s way of thinking. (It helps that he’s obviously incredible at what he does.)
No chronicles the campaign, including planning meetings, film shoots, street riots and the eventual election, all of which play as gripping drama. Rene’s personal life (he’s estranged from his wife — though she always seems to be around — and raising a young son on his own) serves as a backdrop to all the electioneering, and works to up the stakes. It’s one thing to risk your own neck when trying to bring down a dictator, but what about the neck of your child?
Director Pablo Larraín made the bold decision to shoot No on low-definition Sony U-matic magnetic tape, which was used on Chilean TV in the 1980s. You’ll notice it immediately, both because the image is muddy when projected onto the big screen, and also because the aspect ratio of the film is the old TV standard of 4:3 instead of the widescreen we’ve all grown accustomed to. The technique works, and allows Larraín to seamlessly mix his footage with archival tape from the period. It also adds a claustrophobic feel that amps up the tension.
That said, No’s style eventually wore on me, and by the time the rioting and election night drama commenced, I wanted the film to break out of its cramped box. These are high-definition events, after all, and the lo-fi approach ultimately seemed too limiting. But maybe that’s just the gripe of another American brainwashed into a “bigger-is-better” mentality.
There’s no denying that No is assured filmmaking, and Bernal is wonderful as Rene. If nothing else, it’s worth catching No to see an excellent example of South American cinema, which rarely makes its way up North. Pinochet may be a memory, but Hollywood’s dictatorship remains firmly intact.