Monday, March 25, 2013

Movie Review: No

Directed by: Pablo Larraín.
Written by: Pedro Peirano based on the play by Antonio Skármeta.
Starring: Gael García Bernal (René Saavedra), Alfredo Castro (Lucho Guzmán), Luis Gnecco (José Tomás Urrutia), Néstor Cantillana (Fernando), Antonia Zegers (Verónica Carvajal), Marcial Tagle (Alberto Arancibia), Pascal Montero (Simón Saavedra), Jaime Vadell (Minister Fernández), Elsa Poblete (Carmen).

In 1988, under pressure from the International Community, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet allowed a referendum on whether or not he should continue being President for the next 8 years. His bloody dictatorship had lasted 15 years, yet no one really believed he would lose. While each side – the Si and No – would get 15 minutes of air time on National TV every night for a month leading up the referendum to make their case, Pinochet controlled the airwaves, so he basically had all but 15 minutes a day to make his case. Pablo Larrain’s No, which was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this past year, tells the story of how the No side won the referendum. As with Argo, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty, the debate in Chile has raged on about just how accurate the film is. And it’s easy to see why. When the referendum came down on the No side – ousting Pinochet – it was a proud moment for the country –a sign that their people would not be terrified into silence and passive acceptance. But what No argues is that the case made for the No side was really shallow and superficial – the ad executive in charge of the No campaign uses the same tactics to sell “No” as he does to sell soda.

The film stars Gael Garcia Bernal as Rene Saavedra. He is a successful advertising executive, who father was more outspoken and political than he is which lends him some credibility on the opposition side. When he is approached about running the No campaign, he initially refuses. His boss is running the Si campaign, and Rene is more concentrated on making a lot of money to support his son – his estranged wife protests against Pinochet and his regime, and has the bruises to prove it. But eventually, he agrees.

The movie doesn’t present the No side is the kindest of lights – although certainly, they are presented more positively than the Si side, who are really just spineless yes men, who knows what Pinochet has done, and doesn’t care because it’s good for them. But the No side is full of stuffy intellectuals and idealists, who want to sell statistics and intellectual arguments to the people of Chile. They don’t think they have a chance to win, so all they really want to do is to present the facts of Pinochet to the public –to get the information out there. But Rene disagrees. He doesn’t want to depress the people – they do that, and they will lose. So he comes up with a series of ads that are basically pretty people smiling, dancing, having a good time and voting “No”. He doesn’t sell the audience the truth – just some murky version of Hope and Change (sound familiar?).

This makes No a rather strange experience. You would think that a movie like this would be an inspirational film, about people rising up against a brutal regime. But what No really is, is about the people of Chile were duped into doing the right thing, even if it was for the wrong reasons. Does the end justify the means? In this case, sure it does. But what does it say about people that all you have to do to get them to vote the way you want them to is sell them a lie? And that so many people just went along with the lie.

This is why the film is being debated in Chile. I don’t know the true story of what really happened during the referendum – perhaps the ads had little effect on the public, who were going to vote to begin with. But by presenting the victory this way, Larrain undercuts the inspirational aspect of the movie, and makes something a little darker, a little more cynical, a little more thought provoking than it otherwise would be.

No is said to conclude a trilogy for Lorrain about Pinochet and Chile – following the serial killer drama Tony Mareno (2008), about a selfish man obsessed with Saturday Night Fever and Post Mortem (2010), about a morgue in the last days before Pinochet took over. I have not seen either of those films (I meant to see both, but somehow never did), but on the basis of No, I think I should go back and watch them. Lorrain’s film is not an easy one – or at least, it offers no easy answers. It also looks deliberately crude (Lorrain wanted to recreate the video look of the 1980s, and does a remarkable job of it). Gael Garcia Bernal continues to impress in the lead role. But No is not really about any of its characters. It is about Chile in detail, and Democracy in general. It is a fascinating little film.

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