Chile-USA-Mexico (2012). Dir: Pablo Larrain, Scr: Pedro Peirano
Is it possible for an advertising executive to become a national hero? In telling this story, this film presents the case for a little more recognition, at least. A fascinating story – and from fifteen years of military dictatorship there are so many stories – that has at its heart a respect for the spirit of the Chilean people to overcome the worst of circumstances. A film about people with courage giving courage to others.
The film takes us back to 1988, the year of the national referendum in Chile, called by the Pinochet military dictatorship, after bowing to international pressure, to validate its power. A “Yes” vote meant eight more years of Pinochet, “No” was a vote for democratic elections. We are introduced to its central (fictional) character, an adman Rene Saavreda, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, as he is presenting his ad for Free cola to a client. Something of a free spirit himself – he commutes on a skateboard, he has the trappings of success at work: the sports car, the nice house, the nanny to help look after his son. He is estranged from his wife, an anti-Pinochet activist. He is also the son of an exile known well to the Opposition Coalition and is approached by the them to run its campaign of fifteen minute broadcasts every night in the last month before the vote. “It’s just consultancy”, Rene tells his ruthless boss, played by Alfredo Castro, who is also on a senior advisory board in the Pinochet camp.
He shocks the Coalition, when he reviews their early footage which documents the hundreds of thousands who were exiled and tens of thousands who were “disappeared” or murdered during the dictatorship, saying “This doesn’t sell”. His wife accuses him of “validating Pinochet’s fraud” by getting involved. But, while his beliefs and motivation remain slightly mysterious, he replies to his wife, “We’re going to get rid of Pinochet” and he is single-minded on the job: he wants to break “the process of learned hopelessness” by finding the right product. It starts by “listing everything that’s happy” and, when he has his jingle, things move forward quickly.
It’s a story of a brave group of people who worked without money or infrastructure, filming in secret, coping with dirty tricks and intimidation. It also tells of the personal rivalry between campaign directors – his boss takes over the “Yes” campaign. The film is shot defiantly using refurbished U-matic cameras used by the TV companies in the late eighties. The screen is almost square and the image is almost blurred, with a faint shadow of primary colours. This gives it a misty, painterly, individual feel. But it isn’t a self-conscious aesthetic, it takes us right into the media of the time and seamlessly integrates actual achive footage with what’s new, so blurring what’s fact and what’s fiction. It brings real authenticity to the many moments of tension and threat.
Larrain understands the historical and political context of the time. He is not trying to convince us that this campaign, on its own, brought down Pinochet, nor is he dismissing the depth of emotion felt about the dictatorship, but he is showing how a nation was presented with something fresh that may have played a part in its people being a little less afraid and having more confidence to look forward. His point is democratic and universal. But, when 56% of the population had voted “No” and the crowds in the street were chanting “If you aren’t jumping, you’re Pinochet”, he shows Rene lost in thought. Unaware of what he has achieved? Unsure of the future? Perhaps just more comfortable discussing the campaign for a new TV Soap.
No is the third film of a trilogy by Pablo Larrain on the Pinochet era. See also:
Post Mortem (2010)
Tony Manero (2008)
PS No is nominated for an Oscar
No is one of the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2013 Oscars. But it is up against Amour (see review below).