No FL, 2012, 3 ¼ stars

The power of No

Chilean political drama stylishly recounts Pinochet era

Exclusive to MeierMovies.com, 2012

With movies about the 1980 Iranian hostage crisis, the hunt for Osama bin Laden, our 16th president’s fight against slavery and even Sarah Palin’s rise to prominence, 2012 was the year of politics in film. And although most American audiences are just now being exposed to Oscar-nominated No, a fascinating fictionalization of the ad campaign that sought to oust Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, it too deserves a spot alongside Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln and Game Change.

No is an ugly film about an ugly time in Chile. Murderous dictators are rarely attractive, and Pinochet was no exception. So what’s amazing – and somewhat forgotten – is that this thug, pressured by the United States and other nations, proposed a yes-or-no referendum on the future of his presidency in 1988, confident the opposition wouldn’t have the guts or expertise to challenge him. But when a savvy advertiser utilized American-style marketing to bring to prominence the “no” campaign’s message, Pinochet got more than he bargained for.

It’s not just No’s subject that’s ugly. The film itself is, too, as director Pablo Larraín shot on Sony U-matic magnetic tape, the same low-definition videotape used in 1980s TV broadcasts. While it’s difficult to get used to that grainy look and occasionally shaky camera, in addition to the boxy aspect ratio of old TV and pre-1953 movies, the cinematography is more than a gimmick. Indeed, it allows the vintage footage to blend with the rest of the film, breaking down the division between history and fiction.

Even those who hate the movie’s look will appreciate its commentary on political cynicism and the manner in which a repressed people rose up against their dictator not necessarily because of his crimes, but because slick commercials convinced them to. Many of the people had simply grown comfortable with oppression because, like the imprisoned couple in Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Woman in the Dunes, they felt safe. It’s no wonder, then, that René (Gael Garcia Bernal), the fictional head ad salesman for the “no” campaign, isn’t particularly astonished to learn that his own housekeeper is planning to vote “yes.” When asked why, she says simply, “I’m fine.” And she remains that way until she and her fellow citizens are finally awakened by soda-commercial jingles such as “The time for free is now” and “Chile: Happiness is coming!”

Is there a line between intellectualism and consumerism? If so, it’s disturbingly thin, posits No. Slightly thin, too, is some of the film’s character development, especially when Larraín shifts from the political to the personal. But the film’s methodical pacing and Bernal’s strong performance pay off with an emotional impact – and a history lesson to boot.

When René sees the first ad of the “no” campaign, which truthfully addresses the horrors of Pinochet, he dismisses it. “This doesn’t sell,” he explains dispassionately. Even if Americans have forgotten the famous campaign against the Chilean dictator, we can certainly see the similarities in our own body politic.