Tuesday, February 19, 2013

No (***1/2)

Directed by Pablo Larraín


In 1988, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet caved into international political pressure and allowed the people to have a choice: elect him to lead for the next eight years or choose to take him out of office. More simply, they had to choose yes or no to more Pinochet. The 1988 Chilean National Plebiscite changed the course for the South American country, leading to the end of Pinochet's 16 years of punitive, military dictatorship. As is the case with most dictatorships, Pinochet's rule began with a coup d'etat and the hostile takeover of Socialist leader Salvador Allende, with most people hoping that Pinochet would bring peace. Pinochet and his people used the usual tactics to regain power, but 16 years later he would be faced with a whole new kind persuasion, led by a man who truly knew how to go about swaying the minds of the people.

Television's Mad Men has made advertising a sexy narrative, but even that show uses advertising as a metaphor for the image-conscious American society. It makes sense that a Chilean movie gives audiences once of the few positive cinematic portrayals of advertising, since most of Chile's population at the time had little concern over what kind of cola to buy anyway. Again, like Mad Men, No's protagonist is an advertising man, Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), who has been able to find great success in Chile despite his known association with anti-Pinochet protestors (including his wife, who lives in hiding from the police and very rarely even sees their son). He is protected mostly by his boss, Lucho Guzman (Alfredo Castro), a pro-Pinochet CEO who vouches for Rene and allows him to make a living and provide a living for his son, Simon.

When the National Plebiscite arrives, it is seen initially as political plodding by Pinochet, presenting the appearance of democratic fairness to the rest of the world, while really planning to continue the violent grip that he has over the nation. Even those who oppose Pinochet see no interest in voting 'Yes or No', since they figure that the election is probably rigged anyway. So, this is the kind of resistance that the 'No' campaign faces, which is why its leader, Jose Tomas Urrutia (Luis Gnecco) decides to bring on Rene to give the movement a winning edge. Immediately, Rene is turned off by the campaign's dour, "whiny" (he says) denouncement of Pinochet's draconian rule. Why not promote the 'No' movement as a positive change, rather than spending the entire time leaning on the misdeeds of the opponent? The 'No' movement wants to dwell on the pain that Pinochet has inflicted on the people, but Rene knows that that kind of message doesn't sell.

Legally, both the 'Yes' and 'No' movement are given fifteen minutes on national television to make their case. Fifteen minutes - no more, no less - for the twenty-eight days leading up to the election. Rene feels that No's fifteen minutes should be filled with optimism and pretty images, driving home the utopian possibilities that can come with getting rid of Pinochet. But the 'No' movement are almost offended by Rene's assertions about what will work in the ads, quickly dismissing the unrealistic, sentimental pieces. But Jose Tomas sticks with Rene and his ideas, which leads to a popular campaign that gains steam quickly. But the popularity also brings unwanted attention from the harsh military powers that police the country, and also puts Rene in an awkward position with Lucho, who finds himself heading the 'Yes' movement. Rene and Lucho begin playing a competitive game of advertising chess, each trying to guess each other's next move.

Director Pablo Larraín's shot No on 3/4 inch Sony U-matic magnetic tape, which is not only a radical visual aesthetic, but creates a seamless exchange between the narrative and news footage of 1980's Chile. The gimmick works beyond acclimating the audience to television visuals of that time, but instead drowns the audience in an immediacy with a shooting style that looks not unlike most of the 'Yes/No' advertising spots in the National Plebiscite. Granted, the film's intentional "ugliness" will likely turn certain viewers off - and I'm not sure I would totally blame those that are - and it may seem like an extreme way to put a point across. But this shooting style so fully fits with the film's rebellious spirit that I can't imagine it producing a better film if shot any other way.

The film reminded me a lot of 2008's Milk, which did a great job of using editing to seamlessly tell the story of one man, while also simultaneously telling the story of that one man's message. Rene Saavedra seems to be a rather nonconfrontational guy, and noncommittal politically - and some of the members of the 'No' movement come just short of saying so. It isn't until we see Rene's commitment to the safety of his son, and his need for professional and domestic stability that we understand the fascade presented to the outside world. Its in his work that we see his real political motives and the passion that he has for getting Chile out from under the Pinochet thumb. Rene doesn't only push his agenda because he knows that it gives the movement the best chance to win, he pushes it because he wants the 'No' movement to win so badly. Like Saavedra, Larraín knows that the best way to tell this story is stark and realistic, not giving Saavedra a true catharsis till the film's final moments.

Garcia Bernal, known to most audiences for his audacious performances in films like Almodovar's Bad Education and Cuaron's Y tu Mama Tambien, gives a much more grounded performance here. The only other performance on his catalog that rivals this is Walter Salles' The Motorcycle Diaries which tapped Garcia Bernal for before unseen grace by allowing him to portray a young Che Guevara. No further exploits aspects of that performance, but in a different way. Garcia Bernal is no longer the young face from Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu's Amores Perros. At age 34, Garcia Bernal displays a steady paternal side that I've never seen from him before. It might be the most impressive performance I've seen from the Mexican actor, if not one of the easiest to swallow. Garcia Bernal has been a go-to actor for filmmakers seeking talented Hispanic actors (in this regard, he left Diego Luna in the dust), and in No he cashes in on that reputation.

No was the Chilean entry for Oscar's Foreign Language Film award and was awarded with the nomination last month. The film just premiered in the US this past Friday, the weekend before the ceremony. I don't think it has much of a chance to win (No may have got an exceptional reaction at Cannes, but its biggest Oscar competition, Amour, took home the Palme D'or), but I'm glad that it's nomination will lead more people to go out and see it. Despite its striking visual style, No is a compelling tale of political intrigue and the fight to get what you know is right. With a brilliant performance from Garcia Bernal at the front, the film crosses brilliantly from journalistic to intimate without much buffer, while also throwing an eye on one of the most unique political situations of the last fifty years.

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