With No, his third and most accomplished film to date, Pablo Larraín shrugs off the grotesqueries of his two previous features. The film’s protagonist is someone you might very well want your kids to look up to, in contrast to the brutal serial killer at the center of Larraín’s excellent debut, Tony Manero, or the creepy coroner (barely) hiding dead bodies for Pinochet in Post Mortem. There’s still evidence of the director’s darker notions about the power of artifice and the marketing of politics rumbling below No’s narrative, but the film is less angry than melancholic. It’s a note of restraint, a subtle shift in sensibilities for the director, and it echoes throughout Larraín’s latest and solidifies his stature as an artist of distinct moral and historical outrage.
Adapted by Pedro Peirano from Antonio Skármeta’s unpublished play El Plebiscitio, the film follows René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), an advertising exec in Chile who’s hired to consult on and later take charge of the production of a series of 15-minute television spots that, eventually, will sway the populace to vote out President Pinochet in 1988. René’s approach is stunningly simple, and offensively so to many: Sell a prosperous future and entertain rather than recall or reveal a horrific past and present. When René sees the images of torture, public beatings, and corpses that litter the original “No” television spots, produced by top leftist intellectuals and journalists, he balks not out of newfound horror (he’s aware of Pinochet’s crimes), but out of how oblivious his side is of the television audience’s taste. Admonished, belittled, and cursed by various high-level leftists, he hires advertisers and other marketing experts to sell Chile and the “No” through a series of cheesy skits, as a bacchanal rather than an exposé.
At one point, René even insists on creating a catchy, cheery jingle for the spots, rather than produce a heart-on-sleeve ballad or folk number. No takes a similar tack by utilizing a popular subgenre (political drama) and subverting the template through canny stylistic choices, including being shot on Sony U-matic tape. The look of the film matches and lends immediacy to the real television footage Larraín heavily utilizes, and never feels gimmicky or forced. And narratively, where most protagonists of such clear political goodness are near-universally depicted as saintly or strictly defined by their righteous beliefs, the filmmakers keep René’s personal politics in the background for the most part, focusing instead on his creative process of making and broadcasting the spots, and his home life, defined by his bumpy relationship with Verónica (Antonia Zegers), a leftist protestor and the mother of his son, Simón (Pascal Montero).
Peirano’s script also shows a distinct interest in the largely civil relationship between René and his business partner, Guzmán, played by Larraín axiom Alfredo Castro. An ardent Pinochet supporter, Guzmán becomes the head of the “Si” campaign’s television spots, which are expectedly self-serving, fear-mongering, and often near-plagiarized from the “No” spots. He’s occasionally belligerent with René, going as far as to threaten him with a government-sponsored beating, but he ultimately proves to be civil; their relationship is more personally competitive than politically. When the “No” wins, Guzmán is gracious and complimentary to René, who remains his partner in the end. The wisdom Guzmán holds is that René knows how to appeal to people as customers, but doesn’t know how this ability hardens you and hulls you out morally. As people celebrate Pinochet’s impending resignation, René walks home holding his son, but his face is startled and sad. He can’t believe that total evasion of the truth led to progress, and that it was oddly that easy. It somehow cheapens the idea of change further for René, who was already using the notion to sell cola execs on an advertising campaign featuring a mime.
It feels weird talking about the video quality of a film that’s purposefully muddled and rife with definition issues, but all tolled, Sony’s visual transfer of No is about as good as could be expected without sullying the director’s intentions to keep the image the low image quality of the U-matic tape. The colors aren’t vibrant, but they aren’t supposed to be, and all the haloing and random vertical lines add to the aesthetic. The audio isn’t purposefully low in quality like the video is, so there’s more clarity and detail. Dialogue is sharp and out front, and the brassy score and sound effects sound nice and clean in the back.
Both Pablo Larraín and Gael García Bernal sound consistently engaged and prove very informative on their commentary track. They discuss using footage and artifacts from the era, as well as share technical anecdotes and thoughts on what the counter-culture under Pinochet was like. There’s also a short Q&A with Bernal from the Toronto Film Festival that’s pleasant, but not particularly revealing. Some more focus on the real "No" campaign and the technical aspects of the film would have been nice, but the commentary is more than satisfying in terms of lending context to the film. A trailer for the film is also included.
One of the most unexpectedly resonant and heartfelt films of the year, Pablo Larraín’s No receives an excellent A/V transfer from Sony, along with a strong commentary track from the director and his star, Gael García Bernal.