TIFF12 REVIEW: No [2012]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 118 minutes | Release Date: August 9th, 2012 (Chile)
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Director(s): Pablo Larraín
Writer(s): Pablo Larraín / Antonio Skármeta (play)

“Happiness is coming”

What began with a coup ended by the courage of a select group of citizens believing Chile was ready to think about their future. Without bloodshed, bullets, or illegal maneuvering, a misguided attempt by dictator General Pinochet to let the world know he had his country’s support became his ultimate downfall.

After legalizing political parties, pressure from the US in 1988 called for the General to issue a plebiscite vote to decide whether or not to extend his reign by eight years. Allowing political detractors to advertise their opposition on TV fifteen minutes a night for 27 days—countered by the ‘Yes’ campaign’s ‘official’ fifteen on top of their governmental control of television itself—this coalition of sixteen parties appeared happy just for the forum to put Pinochet’s tyranny on display. But when campaign head Urrutia (Luis Gnecco) approaches advertising upstart Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), the idea victory was achievable changes everything. The scared nation was finally ready to stand up and scream, “No!”

The third film of writer/director Pablo Larrain‘s unofficial trilogy, No places an end cap on his homeland’s struggle for freedom under Pinochet’s thumb. Where Tony Manero showed a nation’s fear at the hands of a police state murdering with impunity and Post Mortem portrayed Chile’s takeover through the regular people forced to acquiesce in order to survive, this based on a true story tale of man’s resilience proves hope can prevail. Deciding to inject himself in the middle of the action after keeping the political turmoil solely as a backdrop before, Larrain follows Saavedra and his collaborators as they use laughter and happiness to combat the ugly world around them. With a jingle catchy enough to stick in my head and imagery of smiling Chileans ready for a life of possibility, these enemies of the state risked everything to become heroes.

Shot on a 1983 U-matic video camera to authentically recreate the period’s technological aesthetic, the film’s footage seamlessly cuts together with archival material of Jose Manuel Salcedo and Enrique Garcia’s real campaign. The models for Bernal’s character, their work is brought back to life by recreating their production and the reactions of viewers. A simple concept, the rainbow design of the ‘No’ clan signifies the diversity of parties rising against their dictator and the calm after the storm they hope to achieve. With a number of artists banding together during breaks at their day job and guerilla-style shooting sessions, we become flies on the wall as the logistics of their mission are discussed. Larrain jump cuts often as conversations continue in different locales, pushing the film forward while also retaining a level of spontaneity.

This fact is crucial because No is at its core a straightforward glimpse into a moment in time. Absolutely intriguing to someone like myself with minimal knowledge of Chilean history, I won’t lie and say I was a little disappointed there wasn’t a sociopathic killer or meek introvert living his life outside the scope of the political system. Larrain’s previous ability to craft his stories against this climate without actually showcasing it is probably what endeared him the most to me as a director. Here it becomes the job of form and aesthetic to truly captivate by transporting us to 1988 at the tensest of situations. While these men use laughter and fun to win over a population of non-voters, their lives prove anything but.

At first Saavedra didn’t warm to the prospect of being more than a consultant with good reason considering his oft-jailed activist ex-wife Veronica’s (Antonia Zegers) inability to care for their son and boss Lucho Guzman’s (Alfredo Castro) position in Pinochet’s cabinet. Fearlessly confident in his work, Saavedra continues toeing the line between occupational suicide and moral duty while followed and harassed by government agents. Bernal excels in this sort of internally conflicted role trying hard to stay strong while his cushy life implodes around him. Happy to splice mimes into cola commercials and steer clear of the fight, he rapidly becomes its most vocal leader.

Despite being Bernal’s film, the camera still finds its way into the lives of those around him. We watch Guzman play the system to cover his own butt, Veronica come and go with opinions on ‘No’, and Urrutia and company locking horns before ultimately banding together for the cause. There is a level of aggression involved as the competition continually gets heated once Pinochet’s inner circle realize the vote won’t be a slam dunk and the threat level rises as their window closes. And while the end result is well documented, we still feel suspense as the military begins using force on peaceful demonstrators.

Seen through the lo-fi grain of obsolete tech, Larrain has us forgetting the present to watch as though it’s happening in real time. No easy feat, the film overcomes its normal narrative as a result with each lens flare that burns the screen white a welcome blemish to represent the imperfect men who overcame a nation’s complacency with the pursuit of happiness.

[1] courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival
[2] Gael Garcia Bernal stars as Rene Saavedra in Sony Pictures Classics’ No (2013)
[3] A scene from Sony Pictures Classics’ No (2013)

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