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Zack Mosley [Film Festival 10.01.12] Chile drama

Chile, 1987. Under increasing pressure from the international community and Pope John Paul II, General Augusto Pinochet is forced to recognize democracy and call for a plebiscite to decide whether or not he will remain in power. The plebiscite is set for October 1988, and the choices are simple. A "YES" majority keeps Pinochet in office until 1997, while a "NO" majority removes Pinochet from office and calls for Parliamentary and Presidential democratic elections in 1989. Political advertising was legalized, with each side granted 15 minutes of airtime per day to stage campaign. You can probably guess what side of the campaign Pablo Larrain's No focuses on.

I was under the impression that Obama invented hope, but this movie proves that the Chileans beat him to it by twenty years or so. Gael Garcia Bernal plays René Saavedra, a savvy ad-man who realizes a fundamental truth about his audience. After 15 years under the thumb of a military dictatorship, Chileans were tired of fear, anger, and hate. Showing the ugly side of the conflict would be preaching to the choir. The only way to win the hearts and minds of the country was to appeal to their sense of hope and optimism. Thus a colorful campaign developed around the image of a rainbow and the slogan "joy is coming."

On one hand, anyone familiar with this particular chapter of history knows how this film ends. The NO campaign won, Pinochet was forced to step down (kinda, he occupied a number of other political positions before fucking off completely.) So there is relatively little suspense involved in how the campaign will play out. On the other hand, Rene Saavedra is a composite character based on several real-life figures, so we don't know exactly how things will play out for him personally. Thus there is tremendous suspense in watching him suffer the intimidations and threats of Pinochet's secret police. Will he be abducted, tortured, buried in the desert?

Ultimately, however, No's form reflects its content. Larrain holds back on showing anything truly ugly, focusing instead on the positive aspects of the story. Clips of the actual NO campaign are used in the film, and they are remarkably effective. Even twenty-five years and a continent removed from the sociopolitical context, some of the commercials genuinely moved me. I can only imagine the impact they would have had in Chile circa 1987-1988. MTV-style editing would have been totally fresh at the time, the archaic propaganda of the YES campaign never stood a chance. Director of photography Sergio Armstrong shoots No on what looks like a consumer grade VHS camcorder from 1987, another example of form reflecting content.

This is one of Gael Garcia Bernal's finest roles. His Saavreda is not as some larger than life hero, or some paragon of morality, but a normal guy. For most of the film Bernal plays Saavreda cool and restrained, lending weight to the rare scene where unchecked emotion breaks across his face. One such moment occurs when he drops his son off with his ex-wife and her new boyfriend. Is he upset because of the new boyfriend? Is it the image of his son standing there without him, while the threats against his life threaten to make this image a permanent reality? With everything going on in his life, it's the little moments that hit hardest.

I wanted to count the number of times the word "no" is spoken in this film, but lost track quickly. This serves as a reminder of how often we say "no" in our daily lives, but how difficult it can be to enforce. Is No making a profound political statement? Does it transcend the political drama genre? Will it go down as an enduring classic? It's too early to answer these questions. It may go down like Gus Van Sant's Milk: inspiring in the moment, but faded in retrospect. No is not a Costa-Gavras film, it's not All the President's Men. But does it want to be? Perhaps it is enough to simply be a love letter to the brave, hopeful people of Chile who had the courage to say "no" when it mattered the most.

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