PRINT February 2013


Pablo Larraín’s No

Pablo Larraín, No, 2012, 3/4-inch video transferred to 35 mm, black-and-white and color, sound, 110 minutes. Production still. René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal). Photo: Tomás Dittburn.

THREE TIMES in Pablo Larraín’s No, René Saavedra, an advertising executive in 1980s Santiago, unveils a pitch to his clients. René (Gael García Bernal) is a young hotshot with a then-fashionable rattail and a soothing boardroom manner, and at each meeting, speaking a lingo of practiced buzzwords, he trots out a near-identical spiel: “What you are about to see is in line with the current social context.” “Today Chile thinks of its future.” One sales come-on is for a soft drink called Free. Another promotes a Dynasty-like telenovela. The third makes the case for ending the murderous dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

No (which opens nationally this month) concludes Larraín’s trilogy on the Pinochet years, a series of films that suggest the usefulness of oblique angles when braving the minefields of fictionalizing recent history. The filmmaker comes by this sidelong view naturally. Born in 1976, three years after a US-sponsored coup toppled the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, Larraín is the son of a wealthy right-wing businessman and former senator. Insulated from the worst of Pinochet’s regime, he has said that making films is a way of trying to understand what he came to recognize as a national trauma.

Tony Manero (2008), set in 1978 in a dank and grubby Santiago, is at once the least direct and least subtle of the three films. There are few overt Pinochet references, but the middle-aged protagonist, who (as the title suggests) is obsessed with Saturday Night Fever, can only be taken as a grotesque mirror image of the tyrant: His delusions go hand in glove with his barbarity. Post Mortem (2010) circles back to September 1973, the birth of the Pinochet era, but maintains an occluded vantage on the coup, focusing instead on a dour would-be romance between two accidental witnesses to history. No trades allegory for docudrama. This time Larraín’s protagonist (a composite figure) is a direct participant in a historical event. While he’s not quite indifferent to the world around him—as the antiheroes of Tony Manero and Post Mortem were—his ambivalent relationship with the political project at hand is central to the film’s meaning.

In 1988, Pinochet, bowing to international pressure, called a referendum on his rule. René, who comes from a left-wing family but harbors no strong convictions of his own, is recruited by the No camp, a ragtag group of opposition parties that needs a streamlined message to fill the daily fifteen-minute TV slot it has been granted. Complicating matters—and establishing a neat generational divide—René’s boss, Lucho (Alfredo Castro, the cadaverous star of both Tony Manero and Post Mortem), ends up consulting for the Yes campaign.

In each of his Pinochet films, Larraín has employed a distinct visual style: muddy hues and an agitated handheld camera for the moral void of Tony Manero; for Post Mortem, a drained, ghostly palette (achieved by using antiquated Russian lenses from the late-’60s) befitting a land of the living dead. In No, Larraín integrates actual ads from both the Yes and No campaigns, and matches the look of ’80s video by shooting the entire film with rebuilt U-matic cameras on ¾-inch magnetic tape, the default format for TV news shows at the time. This bold gambit makes for a shadowy, flaring, low-definition eyesore of a movie—until you appreciate its ingenuity as a special effect, naturalizing the archival artifacts in its midst and (not unlike Andrei Ujica’s 2010 found-footage opus The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaus¸escu) enabling an immersive yet thoroughly mediated experience of history.

An ad-world drama, No is naturally fluent in both Freud and McLuhan and would make a fine companion piece for Adam Curtis’s BBC series The Century of the Self, which traces the passage of Freudian theories through the halls of corporate and political power, where voters are now, consequently, treated as irrational consumers. No sets up a tension between the apparent inanity of René’s ads and their obvious effectiveness. The No leaders see the broadcast window as a soapbox for the voiceless, a chance to bring atrocities to light. But René, whose campaign concept is “happiness,” commissions earworm jingles, designs a rainbow graphic, and stages incongruous tableaux of happy, dancing, picnicking families. This earns him the contempt of more militant leftists, including his estranged wife (Antonia Zegers), who accuse him of suppressing the painful past. But whereas many radicals, deeming the referendum a sham, have conceded defeat, René, a born salesman, senses an opportunity.

What we see televised in No is far from a revolution—except that it had the effect of one. Or did it? A campaign movie in which the good guys win, No is immeasurably sunnier than Larraín’s previous films. But there is a touch of anticlimax when the vote count rolls in. (“That’s that?” René asks.) Larraín doesn’t diminish the surreal magnitude of this feat—a dictator ousted without bloodshed, by means of jingles!—but with the help of Bernal’s shrewd, understated performance, he allows questions to linger. Did the No side win because they played the Yes game better? And what exactly were they saying no to?

No becomes even richer when considered within the last forty years of Chilean history, from the country’s status as a laboratory of neoliberalism, where disciples of Milton Friedman tried out free-market policies during the dictatorship, to the 2010 election of Sebastian Piñera, a right-wing billionaire who made his fortune introducing credit cards to Chile. But even under the center-left coalition that governed for twenty years after Pinochet, the nation remained one of the most unequal societies in the world. No begins and ends with essentially the same scene: Lucho and René going in for the sell, business as usual.

Dennis Lim is the editor of the website Moving Image Source and writes regularly on film for the New York Times.