No Review


Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain has defined his career thus far by capturing the dark side of life in his native country during the authoritarian rule of General Augusto Pinochet. His latest, the Oscar-nominated No, is a decidedly brighter picture that chronicles Pinochet’s democratic defeat, and the optimistic tone serves Larrain well. For the first time in his career, it seems as if he’s having fun. And while the narrative isn’t always dynamic, Larrain’s stylistic flourishes help the film sail through any rough patches.

Try as he might, but the brutal dictator Pinochet could not resist the calls of Chileans and non-Chileans alike to subvert his country’s “Constitution”—a document that was, in fact, only adopted in 1980 (eight years before the events of No) and by Pinochet stooges. Nevertheless, it called for a referendum on his presidency wherein Chilean citizens would cast a simple vote. “Yes” was in approval of Pinochet’s governance, and he’d get another eight years. “No” meant he was out, and a general presidential election would be held in a year.

Everyone with a clue knew the No side had a snowball’s chance in hell of prevailing. Not only did Pinochet bring about great economic expansion (which, it must be noted, came at the expense of a never-higher gap between rich and poor), but many believed he’d kidnap and torture—or worse—anyone who seemed like a legitimate threat to his rule.

The man the No side turned to, however, wasn’t a politician. He wasn’t even political by nature. Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal) was a top advertising executive. The Yes and No campaigns each had 15 minutes of television time per night over a one month campaign to sell its message. Saavedra’s motto for team No: “Happiness is coming.” Rather than highlight Pinochet’s atrocities (of which there were many), he called on beautiful people, celebrities, and others to sing and dance with rainbows and joy all around. This is Chile after Pinochet, Saavedra hoped to convey, if enough of you vote No on October 5.

As you might expect, the film hits a few predictable plot points. Saavedra is threatened repeatedly. He has a young son who he must temporarily say goodbye to. He clashes with his colleagues over the tone of the No message. And he sees himself transform into a bit of an activist over the course of the campaign. Gael Garcia Bernal’s performance is understated—almost to a fault—but the character’s arc is pretty compelling, and it’s applied to a truly unique situation and setting.

The film is most noteworthy, however, for its rather extraordinary look. Visually, Larrain mimics the very commercials his lead character makes by using U-matic tapes. The result: Something grainy and straight out of the 1980s. It’s a technique that probably needs to be seen to be understood, but it’s damn cool—much more than a gimmick.

Larrain has said this is the third film in a sort of “Pinochet trilogy” (Tony Manero and Post Mortem were films one and two in said trilogy). If so, it’ll be really interesting to see where he goes from here. He doesn’t exactly make films that set the world on fire, but his sensibility is a welcome one on today’s international film scene, and freed to do whatever he wants, he could be poised for a major breakthrough. Until then, however, we have the low-key charms of No to enjoy.

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