While the majority of awards at next week’s Oscars will be contested between a handful of Hollywood films re-evaluating American history (to varying degrees of controversy), a far less talked-about Chilean film also retelling a crucial moment in its country’s history will be up for best foreign-language film.
No is 36-year-old Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s fourth film and his third in a loose trilogy set during the Pinochet era, after Tony Manero (2008) and Post Mortem (2010). With a cheerier tone to these darker preceding films, and with the ever-reliable Gael García Bernal in the lead role, No is proving to be a real breakthrough for Larraín.
The film takes place in 1988, 15 years after the coup which put Pinochet in power, when due to international pressure the dictator is forced to call a national referendum deciding if he can remain leader. García Bernal plays Rene Saavedra, a savvy advertising executive based on a combination of real-life characters, who is approached by the anti-Pinochet contingent to head their allocated television campaign for the “No” vote. But as we see in the opening sequences, where Rene is effectively seduced by both sides in turn, he is apolitical and initially works on the anti-Pinochet electoral broadcasts purely for the professional challenge it implies. This is what creates the main dynamic of the film, and to the dismay of those around him he treats the TV spots not by making reference to the deaths and torture under Pinochet’s regime, but similarly to the Coca Cola commercials he is used to making, and sells the idea of happiness with catchy jingles and smiling actors.
The message to the Chilean people is a simple one: You can have this happiness if you vote No. Yet as Rene is forced to follow through his actions and the danger they put him in, we see his reasons evolve and his investment in the campaign becoming deeper.
No is a compelling story of democracy coming about in the most unexpected of ways and of a corrupt system being brought down from within, with great attention to the details of the 80s setting. Larraín’s decision to film with actual 1980s U-matic cameras adds to the period feel and gives the light occasional saturated hues recalling the rainbow logo of the No campaign. But most cleverly the lo-fi look means the transition between the action and the real No and Yes ads which are inserted in the film, and which are often very funny, is seamless.
Rene’s ambivalent reaction at the end also leaves just enough of a hint that this commercialisation of democracy and politics into mere marketing and slogans (a phenomenon still visible in any recent election campaign worldwide) is not necessarily reason for celebration, no matter the outcome of the vote. No is a fine film which manages to pack a lot in a short amount of film time, teach you a little about a critical part of Chilean history, and entertain you in the process. It’s at least as worthy of an Oscar as Argo.