No (Pablo Larraín — Chile/USA/France) 118 minutes
Pablo Larraín’s second feature Tony Manero, about a middle-aged layabout’s obsession with Saturday Night Fever in Pinochet-era Chile, was one of the most ingenious political parables of recent years. It was ill-mannered, bitterly cynical and steadfastly disobliging in its refusal to cleave to any self-affirming narrative. Its moody brilliance is best summed up by the outrage it provoked in media types from the US, who were aghast their industry’s product might be reconfigured in such a scabrous manner. Larraín’s latest picture No has had a better reception Stateside, being nominated for the best foreign film Oscar. While it is more clearly an uplifting film than either Tony Manero or Larraín’s subsequent Post-Mortem: Santiago 73, the young Chilean director hasn’t mellowed, even if his anger is tempered as pragmatically as the advertising campaign that is at the centre of the film.
The campaign in question is the one advocating a no vote in the 1988 referendum asking the Chilean people if they would accept dictator Augusto Pinochet remaining in power for another seven years. Each side is being given a 15-minute broadcast per day. The No campaign, a coalition of Socialists, Communists and Christian Democrats entrust the campaign to René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), the son of a former leftist, recently returned from exile. Saavedra’s boss Lucho Guzmán (Larraín regular and star of Tony Manero, Alfredo Castro), a Pinochetista, is in charge of the Yes campaign, though each plays down their role to one of ‘advisor’.
Saavedra’s first task is to convince the No campaign that their existing emphasis, on the violence of the military dictatorship and justice for the disappeared, while laudable, is doomed to lose. Ordinary Chileans such as Saavedra’s maid, content with rising prosperity and isolated from the horrors of the regime’s repression, are perfectly happy with the General. (When Pinochet was under house arrest in London in 1999, his supporters told British reporters that he saved the country — you couldn’t buy blue jeans in Chile before he came to power.) Saddled with a loaded referendum question that requires him to accentuate the negative, Saavedra re-orients the broadcast towards something resembling a Coke ad. Many of the campaign’s members, the Communists in particular, are outraged, calling it a ‘campaign of silence’, but Saavedra is undeterred, even if, as the campaign builds momentum, and his crew are harrassed by government thugs, he allows notes of dissent to creep back in.
No completes what might be loosely termed Larraín’s Pinochet-era trilogy and it is a film that is as slippery as it is accessible. Larraín’s decision to shoot in Academy ratio using ¾-inch Sony U-matic magnetic tape gives it a soupy, low-definition feel, not unlike the early Dogma films, but it also makes it look like a real period document. Many of the protagonists from the time make an appearance, now a quarter of a century older, including Patricio Aylwin, the first post-Pinochet president, now 95, who gamely reprises his role as the head of the No campaign. In many ways the film resembles Lincoln in its depiction of unpalatable compromises made for long-term gain and the knowledge that the victory won is far from the end of the struggle.
There are some in Chile who have criticised whether a historical moment where marketing began to supplant principles in electoral discourse ought to be celebrated. It is a valid point but No is a sober film with a clear view of history and there is no complacency in its account of an undeniably momentous time in Chile’s recent past. It also resonates with the present day, where the old guard has regained power for the first time since the regime’s fall. Sebastián Piñero, a media mogul with a dubious past (and brother of Pinochet’s pensions minister), is now president. His biggest coup to date? Maximising the media appeal of the rescue of the trapped Atacama miners while rolling back the social advances of the last two decades. The rising momentum against his government suggests Chileans haven’t forgotten the virtues of saying no.