Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín (Tony Manero and Post Mortem) gives us another take on his country’s dark dance with military dictatorship in No, an often lighthearted, sometimes inspirational, but ultimately unsettling feature. The film covers an extraordinary time in 1988 during which the Pinochet regime was shamed by international pressure into holding an election to produce a show of legitimacy. For 27 days leading up to the election, the state-controlled TV station aired 15 minutes a day of free programming for the government and 15 minutes against it. After 15 years of silencing the opposition with torture, death, or sheer terror, the junta was confident that their supporters, the Yes party, would turn out in allegiance, and that their opposition, the No party, would stay home, fearful of retaliation or (rightly) convinced that the vote would be fixed. But they didn’t account for the brave and canny image-shapers, straight out of the advertising world, who would steal the election back from the junta.
“Fifteen minutes in 15 years isn’t much,” says the marginalized newscaster brought back to host the No program during one of its nightly segments, but the No team made the most of it, creating a jingle, a logo, T-shirts, and buttons while mixing broad humor, personal testimonials, dramatic reenactments, and ad-like images of shiny happy families to sell the idea of the joy that lay ahead if Chile voted No. Those segments, along with excerpts from Yes ads and other archival footage, make up 30% of the film, according to Larraín, but you’re never conscious of the switching from fact to fiction. That’s because No was shot on 30-year-old U-Matic video cameras imported from the U.S. The grainy, high-contrast imagery and blinding lens flare take a little getting used to, but they ultimately help us surrender to the story, requiring our eyes and minds to adjust just once early on, not every time the filmmakers patch in something from the archives.
Larraín occasionally throws in another nod to the stilted imagery of the times, as when talks between René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), the hotshot young ad man who heads up the No campaign, and his oily boss, Lucho (Alfredo Castro), who takes over for the Yes men when they realize they might actually lose this thing, are filmed one or two sentences at a time in a series of wildly different locations, in the bizarre style of an ’80s-era feminine hygiene ad. Like the film’s final, post-election scene, in which Saavedra and Lucho suavely name-check Saavedra’s No campaign to reel in a new client for their agency, that montage is just one in a series of sharply observed, gently presented bits of social satire that are typical of both Larraín and his screenwriter, Pedro Peirano (The Maid, Old Cats).
All the main characters are composites of several real people. The dissension within the No team is also streamlined, positions and passions sketched out economically to inform the narrative without hijacking it, while a love story between Saavedra and his estranged wife (Antonia Zegers) provides a little more tension and another opportunity to flesh out a more radical point of view. But for the most part, this two-hour film wisely stays focused on a core narrative that’s complicated enough, revolving as it does around one of the central paradoxes of our media-dominated times: Why is hucksterism and showmanship the most effective way to inspire people to act in their own interest? And once you’ve gone down that route, can you ever turn back?
The 50th New York Film festival runs from September 28 to October 14. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.