I set an assignment for myself weeks ago to see Pablo Larrain’s previous two films, Tony Manero and Post Mortem. Together with his latest film, No, they are purposed to represent Larrain’s Pinochet trilogy, a series set during the reign of Chilean dictator Augustus Pinochet. My efforts came to no fruition with me instead opting not to make the commitment to two features of disheartened subject matter. Heading into No on a lovely afternoon, the fear I had was that I was opting for not only a similarly depressing experience, but also an uninformed one.
Outside his name and the general association of the word “dictator”, my knowledge of Pinochet was next to zero. Much to my surprise, though still requiring my active attention, No initiates the uninformed viewer in a way that avoids biased assumptions. The innocents killed, detained, or disappeared during Pinochet’s oppressive reign are no assumption, and not even a secret from the voters in the film. The issue with them isn’t what he’s done, but what he could do to them in spite and because of their protest. With such a state of fear, No seems destined to follow its predecessors cynical path.
The moment the film starts, those fears of a downbeat drought of a two hour experience are expelled by both narrative and aesthetic accomplishments. Enter protagonist Rene Saavedra, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, an ad man working predominantly on cola commercials, who is recruited to work on the campaign to vote “No” to Augustus Pinochet’s government. From the word go, it’s treated as a fight already lost, and Rene’s ideas on marketing strategy do not inspire confidence amongst the more executive minds of the campaign. The execs are pushing for a scathing critique of the horrific injustice of Pinochet’s regime, recalling with greater seriousness the elderly baseball scouts of Moneyball. And what is Rene pushing?
Mimes! Mimes, rainbows, and ear-worm jingles! Rene’s decision to fight fire with flowers is exactly the sort of bid that Larrain reciprocates in how he decides to approach the film. Both the film and the campaign could perhaps have served as more poignant towards a specific group through the route of scandalizing Pinochet’s rule. But how unjust and improper an approach would that have been? Happiness is such an offbeat feeling for this director and the era, and Rene’s broad approach proves jubilant affinity as far surpassing fearful manipulation.
The way Larrain decides to shoot the film is as much of bold and divisive move as Rene’s pop-heavy marketing campaign. Viewers everywhere will be looking to the back of the theater, questioning whether the projection is faulty before adjusting to the film’s visual style. Shot in 80s television style, rather likely through videotape, No has a entirely its own for a narrative feature, and it’s a deliberate aesthetic decision that pays off in spades.
Rather than form a barrier between the audience and the events onscreen, the technique makes all the events feel personal, rather than objective. It uses nostalgia in a cultural context, rather having it be based on personal experience. No feels undeniably like an encapsulation of its time, while putting us into that emotional place is done through the at times intimate, other times jarringly detached, framing of the film’s choice shots. All this is a gamble that has as much potential to lose the viewer as it does to elicit admiration, but Larrain doesn’t bat an eye. As Rene’s says, “If you’re brave, you’re free.”
Though it’s a top-down piece of focused and detailed cinema, No is also an astonishingly good time. Pablo Larrain reciprocates Rene’s desire for everything to be funny and optimistic, while not ignoring the dire consequences these characters face if Pinochet remains in office. As terrifyingly violent as things can turn on a dime, there remains an absolute commitment to the happiness and the humor in the situation. Gael Garcia Bernal, too, proves a perceptive and wry onscreen presence, and as naive as prevailing hope can often seem in cinema, Bernal makes a case for it as logical despite the odds.
Larrain has a clear knowledge of the longstanding misery in his home country, and I am invested now more than ever in seeing how he handled the more painful years of Pinochet’s rule through Tony Manero and Post Mortem. But here, he finds a way to put the painful past behind him in order to look towards the bright future. The only flaw the film holds, if any, belongs to distributor Sony Pictures Classics for not catapulting the film towards a release ahead of November elections. No is perhaps the most concise and unprejudiced political film since 2005’s Cache, and is certainly among the most activating of features regardless of country, political party, or period setting. The message of the film is one either of the current presidential candidates would do well to even acknowledge: “Happiness is coming.”
Bottom Line: No is a culturally nostalgic piece of hilarious and inspirational period encapsulation, but also an optimistic, politically activating statement.