“No” – Film Review


Selling Democracy like Mentos

In elections, people seem less moved by the truth than by their desires. A point made very well in Pablo Larrain’s excellent drama about the Oct 5 1989 referendum that ended the 15 year reign of military dictator Augusto Pinochet in Chile.

Pinochet’s government, compelled by international pressure, is forced to hold a referendum or plebiscite, on whether the government should continue. Gael Garcia Bernal plays Rene Saavedra, a cynical ad man who is tapped to head the “NO” campaign, which is allotted 15 minutes of TV time per night, for a month to make their case on why Chileans should vote “NO” to another 8 years of Pinochet. Meanwhile the Pinochet government follows with their 15 minute “SI” campaignand in reality the control of the rest of the media

From the outset Bernal rocks the boat as he dismisses his group’s desire to air their grievances about Pinochet’s political kidnapping, torturing, and executions, in favor of the political equivalent of a Mentos commercial. Bernal is not received well by his compatriots, who accuse him of trivializing,  but Bernal is convinced that the Chileans don’t want to dwell on the negative past, but want a positive vision of a future of liberty and happiness.  Yet this vision, comically, is reduced mostly to musical montages of people dancing, singing, mimes, and kids running through fields. Larrain expertly captures the silliness of 8o’s style ads. When Bernal seeks a musical theme for the movement, he insists to the songwriter that he’s not looking for an anthem, he
wants “ a jingle”.

In the meantime, Bernal’s  boss is working against him in the Pinochet campaign;his estranged wife is in and out of jail as a political activist; and he cares for his young son. Things begin to get dangerous when proPinochet thugs begin to harass and intimidate the NO campaigners.

Larrain holds our attention in this taut drama. He enters in and out of what could be cumbersome political dialog deftly. Though surely the whole story of the Pinochet demise is not told here, the particular way in which the ad men help take down a dictator is riveting. Seldom has a birth of a democracy been more inspirationally depicted.

Using video cameras made to deliver images that bleed like the early video cameras of the 80’s was an unfortunate choice though.  In trying to capture the essence of the time, presenting a documentary feel through video, or perhaps the ugliness of the time, Larrain has only succeeding in distracting and making an exceedingly ugly-looking film. Too bad, for so much else here is superlative.

Bernal’s character is very detached. We never get a real sense of his emotional involvement in the campaign and its significance to him. This seems to be the point. He comes off like the quintessential , detached professional. From the beginning, he seems more like a careerist who is more into  the challenge of the  “sale” than any ideology. This detachment is frustrating but ultimately fascinating. Can it be that modernism itself, and the professional cultural manipulators were and are more effective than the ideologues?

When Bernal turns it around and uses hard news techniques to sell a soap opera, the irony is thick. In selling democracy or anything else, it seems the only thing that matters is what works.

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