Film Review: No (Sony Pictures Classics)

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by David Ashley

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film-no-poster-200The first Chilean film to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film, No refers to the opposition campaign in the country’s 1988 plebiscite which would eventually see military dictator Augusto Pinochet replaced by democratically elected Patricio AylwinGael García Bernal plays René Saavedra, a PR man whose job would appear to be cut out for him: run the television campaign against Pinochet, primarily held each evening in equally allotted 15 minute blocks for the two candidates (this may strike one as a step in the right direction for the televising of political candidates).  Saavedra sees that his co-workers fully intend to fight the good fight, spotlighting the country’s pain under Pinochet’s rule – even if it seems that this may not give them the boost they need to win, as 76% of the voters are expected to abstain from Chile’s first democratic election in 15 years.

Uninspired Saavedra, who describes heartfelt political testimony as “a drag,” decides to take the campaign in a radical new direction – the direction of corporate American advertisements which, like it or not, proved intensely successful. Thusly his perverse No campaign is born, filled with commercials of pure fluff whose only goal is the inspiration of positivity, and the willful memory wipe of all traces of the negativity of the Pinochet regime. On some level it sounds perfectly sensible, until you see the commercials sensational Saavedra has made: there is no political context whatsoever, simply images of happy, smiling individuals celebrating, exercising, enjoying freedom and a generous portion of capitalism – indistinguishable from ads for soft drinks or tennis shoes. Saavedra’s peers tend to think he’s out of his mind until they witness the huge success of his campaign, and it isn’t long before Pinochet himself (seen here as lazy, slouchy, oafish) is surreptitiously speaking to Saavedra’s peer Guzman about doing a bit of double agenting for the Yes campaign.

No is shot on grainy, obsolete film stock which was used by Chilean television at the time so that when it is juxtaposed with, yes, actual 1988 commercials (some incredible) or police crackdown footage, even sensitive viewers will have difficulty discerning the difference. The film has a tone of willful and playful insouciance, seemingly mirroring how Saavedra feels. He skateboards to and from work and when he gets home finds it awfully difficult to enjoy the time he must spend with his dedicated activist wife (and occasionally absentee mother), quite aghast at his campaign. Behind the scenes of his campaign things are presented with ironic distance and absurdity, the “experts” musing, cursing, panicking, desperately brainstorming, all with space for actor improvisation. Witnessing the unholy union between politics and the spin cycle is entertaining from afar, but when it’s actually affecting your life you may look down at those monitors just like Saavedra’s cohorts do, your flesh tingling with unease at the enigmatic monster created through complicity. So many of us struggle to understand it, wonder if the pangs felt at moral compromise are just sophomore sentimentality – when faced with this question, my mind wanders to the final moments of Quiz Show.

During my screening of the film there were at least four restroom walkouts. No is solidly humorous but loses momentum as it goes on, and is a bit difficult to follow for those unfamiliar with the political context. Vibrancy is possible – probably – in a cynical political satire, but would require some tightening of the screws. Despite my cheeky judgment No succeeded in earning the Art Cinema Award at the Directors’ Fortnight of the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. It will not win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film – Amour will win over the geriatric Academy throng – but the nation of Chile is, surely, proud just to have been nominated.

Gael Garcia Bernal stars in No.

Gael Garcia Bernal stars in No.

 

Official No Website

 

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