NO (Angelika Film Center, March 18, 2013)


An interesting aspect of “No,” is that you would be correct in calling it a film that has made very specific and visual choices. But, you would also be correct in stating that it looks like your old high school Communications video project—the one in which the visual presentation wasn’t a particularly large part of the grade.

In crafting the tale of the 1988 referendum to decide Dictator Augusto Pinochet’s permanence in power, and a young advertising excutive’s campaign to bring down the regime, director Pablo Larraín opted to refurbish old video cameras of the era and tell his tale in period docudrama reality, complete with framing the entire film in the square 1.33:1 aspect ratio which used to be the shape of your TV, but chances are is no longer.

And that is one of the problems with choosing this format. It becomes a throwback, a faux document of a time we are watching on The History Channel and loses all immediacy. Sure, this may be how cheap TV looked back in 1988, but the viewership hadn’t yet learned just how cheap and old it would look in 2013. 

Which brings me to another problem: the viewer (the average American viewer at any rate, which I humbly refer to myself as) does not know how the people saw and felt during this period. The film is wrapped in the campaign and the life of advertising maverick Rene Saavedra (played by Gael Garcia Bernal in a blistering performance [the shot alone of him leaving his son with his ex and her boyfriend is heart wrenching and conflicted without ever needing a word of dialogue]) who, with the bookends Larrain provides, might not picture this revolution much different from a soda pop (ironically named “Free”). We don’t know the Chilean people and we don’t feel what they feel. We don’t even, as a matter-of-fact, learn how they respond to this campaign and what part other factors played in bringing in the NO vote in 1988.

Part of this problem may be the origins of the piece. It was originally a play by Antonio Skarmeta, and one can almost picture a sort of intense, sizzling one-set nerve bender in the vein of Eric Bogosian’s “Talk Radio.” It is too immediate and close to leave the walls of the rooms where the advertising goes down.

And this isn’t all bad. Because, at the end of the day, this IS the story of Rene Saavedra, and the burden of a Chilean history lesson is not its to carry. Rene is a man we don’t quite get to know and whose convictions remain enigmatic. Throughout the film we see his (ex) wife bruised and beaten by the authorities and we see him stand back, silent. Is he a coward, complicit? Does he feel this is not his fight? In scenes where Rene, treated like a head-spokesman for the NO campaign, discusses work and strategy with the head-spokesman for the YES campaign (vote YES to keep Pinochet in power!), they seem to be discussing it as a rivalry or a game. They may have chosen sides which suit them, but it is the manipulating of hearts and minds through their work that suits them best of all, regardless of sides.

And when at the end of the piece, Saavedra drifts into the streets amongst thousands of Chilean citizens, we perhaps even feel we know everyone but him better. Which makes it too bad we don’t know how his campaign worked on them either.

Which isn’t to say there isn’t a lot to like in the film. It is gripping and well-told. If its visual style is ugly (anybody remember the old video tapes where sometimes the whites would blow out and a flash of red would appear? That is here!) and story muddied without prior knowledge of the people, era, and times (if you don’t know much about Pinochet and the Chilean populous going in, you won’t go out with much more than knowing he was bad news); its performances are worthy and its emotions are strong. If you are familiar with the time and allow yourself to fall into its style, it will probably be a much more rewarding experience.

This is the third film in a Pinochet era film trilogy by Pablo Larrain, and perhaps as a companion piece this film will play much stronger. At the very least it has me interested in pursuing them. I’ve seen the NO campaign and the men that made it. But I want to know about the people who saw it. I want to hear more about those who said, “No.”

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