As regular readers of the site know, Chile has a special place in my heart. It is where the American observatory is located in the southern hemisphere, and it is where I first laid eyes on the southern sky, including the Magellanic Clouds. I’ve visited many times, and some of my best friends have lived there.
But you don’t have to be in love with Chile to appreciate the film NO, starring Gael Garcia Bernal. It is based on the events leading up to the 1989 referendum that rejected Chile’s military dictatorship, and marked the beginning of the end of Pinochet’s rule. But don’t take my word for it: NO won the Art Cinema Award at Cannes, and has been Oscar nominated for Best Foreign Film.
While the film is based on real-world events, some aspects have been fictionalized, and the characters are composites. Bernal plays René Saavedra, one of the leaders of an advertising campaign urging a “No” vote on the referendum on whether or not to continue Pinochet’s rule. His boss is contributing to the “Yes” campaign. Each group gets 15 minutes of TV airtime for the month or so leading up to the election. At first, the “No” proponents are sure that Pinochet will fix the election, so are doubtful that participating will do little more than legitimize his regime. But as they get more involved, their families are threatened and they become the targets of intimidation. This only galvanizes them further, and soon they become swept up in a national movement.
In a somewhat odd choice, NO focuses almost entirely on the specifics of the ad campaign and the personal story of René. The horrors of the Pinochet regime are touched on (see more about the history in my review of NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT), but, strangely, René wants to minimize them, to keep the campaign optimistic. He’s relentless in his focus on branding, youth culture, iconography, and selling happiness. In some sense, the film is more about the rise of advertising in elections than it is about the particulars of Chile. This may make NO somewhat more universal in its impact, but it loses something in paying only lip service to the protracted repression, suffering, and murder of Chile’s citizens.
This brings up a deeper point. Should we be celebrating the manipulation of public discourse by advertising firms? Sure, here the outcome was a good one, but it isn’t always. Look at the “Swift boating” of John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election. Ads are now regularly used to completely subvert the truth, and to damper or distract from real discussion of issues. The counterargument is that NO is just reflecting the world in which we live. Still, it projects a kind of glee when the protagonists successfully avoid the issues (even ones where they would be clear winners), and instead substitute a kind of happiness lifestyle, complete with jingles and actors.
Parallel to that, the film runs the risk of oversimplifying a complicated movement, based on real activism, courage, diplomacy, and suffering. The advertising campaign was just a part of what ultimately brought Pinochet down. If the Germans had voted Hitler out of office after he’d killed the first few thousand people, would it be right to celebrate advertising, especially if it played down the horrors that were committed? I’m not sure what the answer is, but clearly NO is far more thought provoking than your typical Hollywood fare.
Another bold choice made by NO, that I’m torn on, is the decision to shoot it on video, and even mimic the hand-held 1980s video aesthetic. It looks god-awful, but it does put you right back in 1988, and has the added effect that contemporaneous video blends seamlessly with the modern shots. I could almost never tell what material came from the time period and what was shot recently.
This choice does allow Gael Garcia Bernal to blend perfectly into the role. He’s great in a nuanced performance as René, a protagonist we’re always rooting for, even if we’re never sure if he’s making the right decisions. While the life of an advertising employee can seem shallow, his character is given some depth by his struggles to raise a child amidst a broken marriage, and a country in the throes of a slow-motion revolution.
But the real draw for NO is the quality of the story, and storytelling. It is alternately serious, funny, intellectually interesting, and moving. It is adapted by Pedro Peirano, based on a play by Antonio Skármeta. I may not agree with every decision made by director Pablo Larrain, but NO is clearly worth your time. Fans of cinema that causes you to think while entertaining you owe it to themselves to check it out.