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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Review: No (2012)

* * *

Director: Pablo Larrain
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal

Much of politics is a matter of advertising, of selling one candidate over another, of taking complex ideological stances and simplifying them as much as possible to make them not just palatable, but appealing to the electorate. Advertising can reduce a political race to "good" and "bad" or "us" and "them," and it can be used to create the illusion that there's a race at all, allowing dictatorship to carry on in disguise as Democracy. Pablo Larrain's No is set during Chile's 1988 plebiscite to determine whether or not the rule of Augusto Pinochet would be extended for another eight years, and unlike many politically themed movies it isn't about the battle between democratic ideals and the tyrannical forces of power, but about the triumph of marketing and turning politics (and, by extension, Democracy) into a commodity. That may sound cynical, but No really isn't a cynical movie - or, at least, it doesn't feel that way because it depicts an instance where the use of manipulative tactics yielded the good result rather than reinforcing the bad status quo.

Gael Garcia Bernal stars as Rene Saavedra, an acclaimed ad man asked to consult for the campaign against Pinochet. Although his boss, Lucho (Alfredo Castro), is politically conservative, Rene agrees to take a look at what the No campaign has come up with and finds it lacking. It's a cerebral campaign that focuses on the evils and abuses of the dictatorship, and though it speaks to the heart, it also stirs the fears that have allowed the dictatorship to remain in power for so long. By putting the brutality of life under Pinochet's rule at the forefront, the No campaign is merely reminding people of how dangerous it can be to cross the government and potentially instilling a fear of reprisal, rather than a sense of agency, in the electorate. Rene's idea is to focus the campaign on the idea of "happiness" and the idea that a new day is dawning on Chile, one in which happiness and freedom are there for the taking. Although he faces opposition within the ranks of the No campaign, as people naturally want the government to be held accountable for its actions, the happiness focused ads get played and strike a chord with viewers.

As the No campaign gains steam, those behind the Yes campaign unleash a private campaign or terror and intimidation against their competitors which leaves Rene fearing for his own welfare and that of his young son, but does not scare him off from his work. Nor does Lucha's discovery of what he's been doing, which results in Lucha going over to work for the Yes side and trying to do for them what Rene has managed to do for No. However, while No continues to reach people, the Yes campaign eventually just starts ineffectively trying to parody No, leaving the government feeling desperate enough to attempt to censor the No ads and break up peaceful No rallies. These tactics, however, only reinforce the No campaign which, as the referendum nears, seems to be unstoppable.

In the lead role Gael Garcia Bernal delivers an effectively low key performance, even toned for the most part except when his character is getting into it with Lucha. Despite his role in the No campaign, the character isn't really politically engaged and that doesn't really change by the end of the film, even after he experiences what it's like to be the target of government intimidation and abuse of power. For him the No campaign, despite its far reaching importance, is just another ad campaign and when it's done, he and Lucha move onto the next thing and his reaction to the outcome of the referendum is somewhat ambiguous. He's not a traditional movie hero who agitates for what's right, but someone for whom the right thing just happens to coincide with a business opportunity.

One of the most notable aspects of No is its visual aesthetic, which makes use of low definition tape, allowing Larrain to blend the fictionalized scenes with actual news footage from the era. In addition, it gives the film a deeply lived-in feeling (though it is a bit hard on the eyes) that allows it to keep the stage setting to a minimum and get straight to the story. Although the film has been criticized in Chile for reducing the No campaign to something which merely happened through television advertising, from an outsider's perspective the screenplay by Pedro Peirano presents a narrative which tells a small but complex part of a larger story. The film is primarily concerned with the power of language and images and how such things can be manipulated for good or for ill (and how that can be done well, and how it can be ineffective), but also with the legitimacy of the referendum in the first place, and the notion that a dictatorship can be peacefully removed from power. While Rene is out winning hearts and minds, his ex-wife is constantly being arrested and detained for her participation in anti-government protests and activities. Far from being supportive when she learns that he's working for the No campaign, she instead thinks that he's playing into the dictatorship's hands, believing that the government will be declared the winner whether or not the vote is actually in their favor, and that the plebiscite will merely legitimize Pinochet's regime. Although it's unlikely that any feature film could properly explore all aspects of the situation, No does explore multiple points of view as it tells its story, and it ultimately tells that story quite well.

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