No Tells a Fascinating Story (But not Well)

NO (2102)
Directed by Pablo Larraín
Fabla/Participant Media, 118 minutes, R (language)
Spanish with English subtitles

* * 1/2

No documents a fascinating event from the late 20th century. In 1970, Salvador Allende Gossens became the world’s first freely elected Marxist leader, when he assumed the presidency of Chile. Allende proceeded to do things such as nationalize the Chilean copper industry, raise the minimum wage, subsidize the arts, and launch anti-poverty programs—all of which were anathema to investors, international bankers, and Chile’s upper class. Three years later he was toppled by a military junta headed by General Augusto Pinochet, possibly with the direct aid of the CIA and definitely with indirect aid. (There is little doubt that Henry Kissinger had conversations about overthrowing Allende.) Pinochet’s rule was among the most brutal in the Western hemisphere, and his death in 2006 was probably all that stood between him and convictions for crimes against humanity.

Pinochet was, however, long out of power by the time of his death, thanks to the campaign dramatized in No. In 1988, Pinochet’s rule ended through an unlikely means—he lost a plebiscite that would have approved a new eight-year term for his regime. For those unfamiliar with plebiscites, it is a political maneuver invented in ancient Rome in which citizens are asked to vote yes or no on a single issue. Its intent is largely to give the gloss of public approval for actions favored by those currently in power; put another way, it’s exceedingly rare to lose a plebiscite as those in power control the question and voting procedures. In Chile’s case, Pinochet opponents had just 27 days to make 15-minute-per day TV pitches for the “No” campaign. That’s it—just 6 hours and 45 minutes of total campaign time, or Pinochet stays in power.

No tells the remarkable story of how Pinochet was undone. The basic premise is one that should be distressingly familiar to Americans—that freedom and democracy could be sold to Chileans the same way that one sells cola drinks and fashion. We see the “No” campaign unfold through the eyes of the advertising agent who created it, René Saaverda (Gael Garcia Bernal). Saaverda was a mile wide and an inch deep, but he understood that people live in perceived realities that are often divorced from sociological data and human rights abstractions. He also had a grasp of how to construct 80s-style glitzy videos. In essence, Pinochet lost to a jingle themed on the slogan “Happiness is Coming.” Saaverda proved to be correct, though he first had to convince leftist ideologues to set aside principles in favor of frothy, trite imagery. He also had to battle his own boss, “Lucho” Guzmán (Alfredo Castro), who was spying for the “Yes” campaign, deal with the stress of being estranged from his wife, Verónica Carrajal (Antonio Zegers), and elude state-sponsored campaigns of intimidation that held the possibility of making him one of the “disappeared.”

It’s hard to know which is scarier, the Pinochet regime or the ease with which the masses can be led one way or the other. No is an interesting portrait of an entire nation existing in a liminal state in which it’s never clear whether it’s time to move beyond tyranny and fear, or whether the autocratic grip remains so tight that all who oppose it are martyrs in the making. (The presence of scores of high-profile international observers is probably what prevented a bloodbath.)

All of this makes for a potentially fascinating story, though director Larraín falls considerably short of making the film as compelling as it should be. This film was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar, but that’s based on the subject matter, not the direction or performances. Larraín seeks to add verisimilitude by filming No as if it’s a documentary. He bathed the stock with light sepia undercoating to give it an “old” feel, and used hand-held cameras, lens flares, and episodic storytelling to give the illusion of being in the moment. Often, though, the narrative feels disjointed, story lines turn down dead-end alleys, and the action feels more like a bad dress rehearsal than a vote on a nation’s future.

Bernal has limited range as an actor and in No he doesn’t do much more than lumber about with puppy-dog eyes and a hang-down face. We suspect that Saaverda is a huckster for whom freedom is just another product to flog, but Bernal doesn’t do more than make us think he’s just an actor walking through a part. He’s not sharp enough to be conniving, not articulate enough to be ideological, or proactive enough to make us suspect evil. He is, simply, on screen, and about half the time we wonder why. The superior actor Alfredo Castro does his best to engage Bernal, but his part is too underwritten to pull it off.

View No for the history lesson, not its filmmaking or performances. If it inspires you to dig into Chile’s troubled past, ask questions about the persistence of fascism, and contemplate ways of countering it, your two hours will be well spent. But it was no injustice that this film didn’t taste Oscar victory.—Rob Weir  

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