Monday, February 11, 2013

Review - No

Much blood was spilled in Chile during the reign of General Augusto Pinochet, but in his new film No, Pablo Larraín focuses on a group of men who attempted to defeat a dictator with happiness. This is a turn of events that is as welcome as it is surprising, as the previous two films in Larraín's loose trilogy of Chilean dictatorship have given us little to smile about. Tony Manero and Post Morten were grim affairs, and whatever humour they possessed was of the gallows kind, but No is the most accessible and immediately enjoyable film that the director has yet made, as well as being his most satisfying and accomplished work.

No takes place in 1988, the year in which Pinochet, under increasing international pressure, was forced to hold a referendum to decide the country's future. The nation was asked a simple question, to decide whether they wanted the current regime to stay in power, and they had to answer YES or NO. In a gesture towards democracy, the state-controlled television networks allowed 15 minutes of airtime per day in the month leading up to the vote for the NO campaign to put forward its argument. In an unexpected move, the NO campaign largely eschewed the traditional tactics of opposition parties by painting an upbeat vision of what life could be like after Pinochet instead of focusing on the abuses committed by his dictatorship. They sold freedom from Pinochet as if it was the latest must-have product.

That approach makes more sense when we see that the NO campaign is being orchestrated by advertising creative René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), a fictional creation who represents the large advertising team behind the commercials. We first see him pitching his campaign for a new soft drink, with a fast-paced advert and aspirational language, and he uses these same techniques when he is hired to work on the NO campaign. He creates a jingle, a colourful logo (with a rainbow indicating the disparate opposition parties working together) and a series of TV commercials that are filled with optimistic imagery and good humour. The images used in these adverts had little to do with the everyday lives of ordinary Chileans – a family eating baguettes at a picnic, a very tall Scandinavian-looking man are two of many incongruities – but after initially being dismissed as trivial escapades, the NO campaign gradually began to win the hearts and minds of voters, and unsettle the establishment.

Larraín's previous two films had protagonists who existed outside the political system, but No focuses on a character who finds himself at the heart of it. René Saavedra initially appears to be an apolitical character who takes on this project as a job like any other, and his ex-wife Verónica (Antonia Zegers) appears to be the real political firebrand in the family, but he later reveals that he was an exile. No's screenplay (by Pedro Peirano, who pulled off a similar balancing act with The Maid) is a marvel in the way it folds exposition and political details into a compelling and funny narrative. Larraín neatly flits between high-spirited sequences of creation and political subversion to tense scenes of intimidation, with Saavedra and his cohorts being menaced and followed by shady government operatives. The one aspect of the film that doesn't quite fit is the domestic story, with Saavedra's ex-wife and young son being awkwardly inserted into the story without making much impact.

No is a film set in the 80s and in every respect it is a brilliant evocation of that era. The integration of real news footage and commercials into the picture is particularly impressive, and it is facilitated through No's most daring aesthetic decision. The whole film has been shot on U-matic video, with the flat, square and ugly images making it look like a cheap soap opera. It does take some getting used to (as does Larraín's habit of cutting conversations across different locations) but it allows for a seamless blending of reality and fiction, paying particular dividends at the end of the film when Saavedra goes out on the day of the vote and finds himself caught in the midst of violence. No achieves the trick of gripping us as it moves towards a result we are already familiar with, and the climactic scenes of joy are exhilarating to witness, even as the director tempers them with a more ambiguous final scene. From the evidence of his previous work, I would never have guessed that I could have enjoyed a Pablo Larraín film as much as this. It seems the director has taken the advice of his protagonist – sometimes changing the tone and having a little fun is the most effective way to get your message across.