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There are not many upbeat movies about South American politics in the 20th century, and the angry ones have been marginalized as suspiciously radical. What happened in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile balances somewhere between dreadful tragedy and villainous treachery, much of it abetted by the United States. Chile's 1973 coup may be the hemisphere's most brazen on our foreign policy image. Who would trust Uncle Sam after that? The coup was covered in the 1982's Missing, a picture of damning truths guaranteed to make Americans uncomfortable. Since Missing was filmed by Costa-Gavras, the director of State of Siege, Hanna K and "Z", the mainstream could dismiss it as leftist propaganda. Documentaries that tell the truth about the coup in Chile, like Patricio Guzmán's The Battle of Chile, couldn't find much in the way of theatrical distribution here at all.
Forty years have passed since the coup, which in America is enough time for Hollywood representations of wars and revolutions to shift from mock sensitivity to irreverent comedy. In Chile the wounds are still open. 1 That's what makes Pablo Larraín's 2012 feature No such an accessible delight. It stars Gael García Bernal, whose previous activist drama Even the Rain is highly recommended. It isn't directly about the coup or political repression; those things are taken for granted. Based on a play by Antonio Skámeta, No instead takes place fifteen years later, in a Chile that has made an uneasy adjustment to dictatorial military rule.
René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), the son of a noted socialist, is a young advertising creative director in the agency owned by Lucho Guzmán (Alfredo Castro), a gentleman with strong ties to the Pinochet regime. René has a small son and is separated from his wife Verónica (Antonia Zegers), a frequently-jailed activist who considers René a total sell-out to the system. In 1988 the Pinochet dictatorship is under increasing international pressure to prove its legitimacy. A plebiscite will determine if Chileans want him for eight more years, or would prefer open elections. The only political campaigning allowed will be fifteen nightly minutes of TV airtime for the YES and NO options to state their case. The cynical (or practical?) attitude is that the plebiscite will be rigged, or that Pinochet will simply ignore an outcome that doesn't favor the regime. René is approached to spearhead the NO campaign, while Guzmán advises Pinochet's YES team. It prepares a dry set of patriotic TV messages. They doubt anybody will really watch the shows.
Verónica tells René that he's just helping to legitimize the ruling regime. He finds himself working with a group of opinionated socialists, all of which have been harassed and jailed and are paranoid about reprisals. They want to use the nightly 15 minutes to scream out the truth of the coup -- the murders, the disappearances -- that has been so brutally repressed for so long. René must convince them that a 'happy' sales job is needed, as if Freedom were a product like soda pop. His proposed logo incorporates a rainbow. His shows have dancers, positive taglines, inspirational songs and hip humor.
The public responds to René's NO message, while the most the constipated YES propagandists can come up with is patriotic flag waving and Pinochet in civilian clothes. The problem is that, as the NO campaign proves its worth, the regime begins to fight dirty. The socialist opposition is followed at night and vaguely threatened. The supposedly neutral election officials give Guzmán early looks at the NO campaign. Guzmán tries to buy off René with an agency partnership if he'll quit the NO campaign. As the date for the plebiscite nears, nobody knows what will happen.
No is wonderful. Fifteen years after the coup, Chile has a 40% poverty problem, but the wealthy are now more Americanized than ever, with microwaves in their kitchens (we see René and his son experimenting with one) and glitzy image-based advertising on their televisions. René earns a good living creating commercial pap, only to find that his skills are exactly what's needed to "sell" the concept of a happy non-Pinochet future to average Chileans. Some of the NO socialists are outraged by the 'happy-happy' approach, which begins every broadcast with someone saying, "¡Chile, la alegr&iacite;a ya viene!" (Chile, happiness is coming!). They consider the campaign an insult to the memory of the political murders and crimes. René asks them what they want to do. Do they want to lecture the public? Make them more frightened so they won't vote? Or do they want to win?
It's pretty funny -- America's decadent advertising is what is needed, because it communicates with people. René's approach sees the NO option as a product to be sold, and that means that it has to be as non-threatening as possible. René even co-opts the imagery and sentiments of the glitzy We Are The World charity video, assembling the country's biggest stars and artists to chant a 'think positive' song. When the writers propose to give him a great anthem, he instead asks for a simple jingle, something that will stick. In their clandestine meeting rooms, René is as effective as Mad Men's Don Draper. 2
We see enough familiar imagery to remind us that Pinochet's generals could crack down at any time. Agents sit in cars outside René's home, while 'trouble squad' troops prowl the night in open-backed trucks. Pinochet's Minister Fernández (Jaime Vadell) seems obsessed with the idea that the leftists are all homosexuals. When Guzmán suggests that pressure should be applied to the NO campaign, the Minister says, "Be careful with what you say Guzmán. If I open that door you have to close your eyes." That's line suggests all the menace that No doesn't depict in the open.
One ad shows actors Christopher Reeve, Jane Fonda and Richard Dreyfuss thumping for the NO vote. René isn't pleased when a hard-line director in his group pushes through some rougher content, but one example is a marvelous re-purposing of the kind of riot footage we see every night on TV. A security man knocks down a protester, and then strikes an unnecessary blow to the man's head. The film is stopped, reversed and played again, while circles drawn on the screen identify both protester and soldier as Chileans. We're told that both have the right to their beliefs, and that both want the same thing, peace and harmony. A NO vote will deliver hope for this. Over at the YES campaign we see a shot of a steamroller approaching a little girl, threatening her with being crushed. The contrast is remarkable. The steamroller image is the kind of ham-fisted propaganda we American see in our political TV ads.
The film's evenhandedness is quite in evidence. The head socialist complains that his fellows love to meet over drinks and barbecue but won't make hard decisions. René and his right-wing boss clash bitterly, but Guzmán proves to be a man of personal integrity. But the men behind the two campaigns are very different. The opposition NO people have never been secure. Many are back in the country only after years of exile. Yet they listen to and graciously accept a servant's reasons for voting YES, without giving her a hard time. 3 Pinochet's ministers are a pack of sycophants contemptuous of any ideas but their own. Their job is to put a respectable face on an illegitimate, utterly corrupt regime. Behind everything they say is an implied threat to use force. The top advertising specialist running the YES campaign is a practical man in a very scary job. Just like René, he cannot let the Ministers determine the campaign. If they did, it would turn out a disaster, an show that plays like an unfunny 'Springtime for Hitler'.
Gael García Bernal carries his role well, keeping his composure through a number of trials that include his wife's somewhat cruel treatment. Perhaps René committed other errors, but it looks like she's rejected him for being a lackey of the establishment. No is too smart to ask us to believe that René's success will win her back. Or is that still up in the air? As Lucho Guzmán, Alfredo Castro has perhaps the most interesting part. Lucho has an "in" with the regime and doesn't mind throwing his weight around, but just being on the other side of the barricades doesn't make him a total rat. Castro and Antonia Zegers starred for director Pablo Larraín in his highly regarded thriller Post Mortem. No proposes that Chileans across the political spectrum ought to be able to coexist. It's a sad truth: movies about tanks in the streets, aiming point-blank at the elected government building, are essential education. But they don't raise people's hopes, and pictures like No do.
Sony Pictures Classics Blu-ray of No is an excellent rendering of this unusual Chilean film, which after a quick circuit of the art theaters last Christmas, won a nomination for Best Foreign Film. It does have a serious handicap. The whole movie was shot on the kind of video being used in Argentina in 1988: Betacam and U-Matic (3/4") tape. The 1.33:1 aspect ratio gives the picture a small screen look. I'm assuming that the film was made this way for the sake of realism, or because the format allows for the inclusion of actual videotape from the time: TV shows, newsreels, etc.. That brings up a question, are the NO and YES campaign materials on the show authentic, or recreations? 4
The picture exhibits all the flaws of crummy old NTSC video in that gauge -- gross color fringing and bad flares whenever someone points the camera at the sun. We become accustomed to this look. Although I haven't seen a DVD copy, I wouldn't imagine that there's any meaningful benefit to buying this in HD.
The only movie I can compare this to is the delightful romantic comedy Italian for Beginners. That Danish show was filmed on flat Betacam in the strict Dogme 95 style, which proposes that shaky, randomized camerawork is some kind of artistic statement. We love Italian for Beginners but really wish that it looked better. No has a good reason to go for a non-standard visual look.
A good trailer for the show is included. Gael García Bernal contributes a feature commentary, and is present for a Q&A session about the show.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
No Blu-ray rates:
1. The stunning compilation film September 11 ends with a Ken Loach episode about a Chilean exile writing his emotional response to the loss of 3,000 American lives at the World Trade Center. In the other September 11 thirty years before in Santiago, the C.I.A. and Henry Kissinger helped assassinate Chile's elected leader and turned right-wing death squads loose to murder 30,000 Chileans that thought they could determine their country's future without outside interference. The exile ends his letter with the admonition that his country will weep for our dead, if we'll weep for his.
2. Maybe I get a special kick out of this from working in TV commercials for five years. I had a constant smile on my face, sometimes because the campaign concepts were clever or funny, but also out of amazement at the occasional sick ideas and attitudes that were being sold along with the products. Mattel Toys created really ugly gender roles and 'mental spaces' for boys and girls. For several years the top Sea World ad creative director came up with arresting, catchy jingles. He also figured out how to customize Sea World TV spots to piggyback on big mainstream successes involving children or families. One successful Sea World campaign had a tiny girl 'befriend' a killer whale, connecting with the kid-alien creature vibe in E.T.: The Extraterrestrial.
3. This last bit seems a bit optimized to me. The Latin academics and intellectuals I've known can be thin-skinned, unforgiving and argumentative to a fault. Love 'em anyway.
Hi Glenn, great review of No except for a couple of related issues - the 'film' stock and whether the campaign videos were recreated. In Simon Miraudo's Quickflix interview the director declares that the film is comprised of "nearly 30% archival footage" and that this was instrumental in them using the Digimatic video system. I think it works, and the fact that we are watching the real commercials only makes the film more remarkable.
Keep up the great work! Cheers, Steve
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