Rating: R (language)
Length: 118 minutes
Release Date: August 9, 2012
Directed by: Pablo Larrain
Stars: 3.5 out of 5
Political movies are often about corruption and conspiracies, with few ever really taking into account the constituents of the politicians in question. In “No,” the constituents, in this case the people of Chile in the late 1980s, take center stage. In particular, Rene Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) is the focus, as he is a young advertising agency worker who is tasked with coming up with a campaign for the opposition party trying to get dictator Augusto Pinochet out of office. It seems like a nearly impossible task, especially since Pinochet desperately wants to hang on to his power and will not hesitate to murder anyone who gets in his way, including Rene.
Rene takes the job, even though he knows it comes with a certain amount of danger and a whole lot of responsibility. Both the “yes” and “no” campaigns will have fifteen minutes of free primetime airtime to get their point across in support or opposition to Pinochet. Rene is given notes by his boss Lucho Guzmán (Alfredo Castro) about using negative ads and short films to try and convince people to vote Pinochet out. At first all seems well, until Lucho sees the first few ads that Rene makes, which are actually about returning Chile to a happier time. They are full of rainbows and hope, two things that Lucho, as a Pinochet sympathizer, can’t and doesn’t want to imagine. This puts Rene at direct odds with some of his clients and his boss, who could easily have him fired or worse.
The ad campaign begins to take on a life of its own, eventually sucking in the undecided voters. Lucho seems powerless to stop it, as does Pinochet, unless he wants to resort to the violence that got him to this vote in the first place. Incredibly, this is not a complete work of fiction, but instead is based on a true story. The campaign really did help kick Pinochet out of the office that he held with the utmost in brutality since the 1970s. It shows how, with a little bit of encouraging, people can come together to defeat politicians and anyone else who is holding them back. It is truly a film about the triumph of the human spirit that doesn’t have to get too sentimental to still be powerful.
One of the biggest surprises about “No” is that it is filmed using low-fi cameras and equipment. In today’s Blu-ray world where high definition is king, it is a bold and risky bet. The best pays off because the lower definition actually enhances the era that the story is being told in, which is the late 1980s. It hearkens back to an earlier age before most people could even imagine having flat screens and little reflective discs to put movies on instead of VHS tapes. Credit goes to director Pablo Larrain for having the courage to be so gutsy and take the risk that modern audiences might not like a picture that looks less polished than what they are used to.
Larrain also wrote the screenplay, which is an adaptation of the play by the same name. It serves as a bookend of sorts to the director’s two previous efforts, “Tony Manero” and “Post Mortem.” Though neither of those films was directly about Pinochet, they were set against a backdrop of his rise to power and subsequent rule, which is a dark mark on Chile’s history due to numerous human rights violations and murders. Though not officially a trilogy, all three films tie in to each other because of Pinochet, with “No” serving as the only one that has any real levity to it. The first two were extraordinarily dark, whereas “No” is hopeful and downright optimistic at times. It is a nice change of pace from Larrain’s usual fare-one that his fans might not be expecting but will definitely like.
The good news is that anyone who is watching “No” for the first time and has not seen the first two films will not have any trouble following the story. In fact, Larrain wisely sets aside a bit of screen time at the very beginning of the film to explain the state of Chile under Pinochet’s rule. This allows viewers who have only vaguely heard of the dictator watch the story with enough perspective to truly understand and enjoy it. After that, it is easy to follow along on this tense, perfectly crafted political thrill ride. Audience members will learn a thing or two about politics and history, and then leave the theater wondering what will be the topic of Larrain’s next film.