Chile's Oscar nominated film No does not look good -- but that is just one part of its resounding success. Equal parts in humor, suspense and joy, No is a triumph.
There is an abundance of craft from director Pablo Larraín on display in No. Despite what may appear to be a muddled visual affair, the grainy, blown out, classic TV ratio of 4:3 is a testament to Larraín's dedicated research in telling the story of the nationally televised airtime that was allotted to a group in opposition of the militaristic Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
In 1988, due to worldwide political pressure, Pinochet called a referendum (plebiscite) on his presidency in Chile. The country could vote "YES" or "NO" to the extension of Pinochet's rule for another eight years. The pro-Pinochet ("YES") and opposition ("NO") campaign were each given an equal 15 minutes of airtime on Chilean television to present their sides.
Knowing that the opposition was going up against an established, oppressive regime, the "NO" contingent turn to Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal, a composite character of two true figures, Jose Manuel Salcedo and Enrique Garcia), a Chilean advertising guru (who also worked many years abroad) to shape their campaign.
The "NO" campaign faces a conundrum: They only have 15 minutes each week to convince the elderly that the country is worse off than before, and also to get the youth to feel like their vote would matter. For anyone not working in advertising, just know that these quadrants -- the young and old -- are damn near impossible to reach with just one campaign strategy. Against the wishes of the activists in the "NO" campaign, Saavedra trusts his own twisted advertising gut: He'll ditch the flashing images of beatings juxtaposed with numbers of factual horrors (33,000 killed; 200,000 tortured since 1973, the year of Pinochet's appointment) in favor of a jingle, smiling faces, a uniform design of inclusiveness and a big promise to get people to the polls.
Larraín seamlessly weaves real footage of televised riots and advertisements not only with modern reenactments, but integrates some of the real Chileans who were featured in the opposition movement: The very same clapping hands, smiling faces, frizzed-hair dancers and neon-clad civilians that Salcedo and Garcia utilized in their opposition campaign are spliced in modern time with their younger counterparts. To do this, the entire film is shot using a 1983 U-Matic videotape recorder, the very same cameras that were used to film all material that was broadcasted on television to Chileans in 1988.
If you weren't told by anyone, you probably wouldn't recognize the effect.
Technically, No is a marvel -- a reenacted political manifesto that stands on a pillar opposite of Costa-Gavras' seminal and award-winning film, Z.
Z was a suspenseful, and politically charged physical riot (pipes to the head, abductions into the bed of a truck, political prisoners, etc); No is more calculated and remote: It is a riot started with people who create images for a desired reaction.
What elevates No beyond a glowing technical achievement of celebrated heroism is Bernal.
Bernal plays a character who is an anti-hero that is unwittingly cast as the hero. He is the bright, young, Westernized star of Chilean advertising. He is egotistical. His boss (Alfredo Castro) is in charge of steering the "YES" campaign and tries to persuade him (with a corporate partnership) to join his side.
Having already implemented the masterstroke of mixing existing and recreated footage, Larraín creates a more daring storytelling masterstroke in focusing on Bernal, who is not an activist, but is an idea man. His ideas sell products. He competes against his boss. Win or lose, he is going back to work, and -- he'll be more lucrative if he wins. Not to say that he has no passion for the cause, but his passion is most expressed when he is trying to get the crew to blindly trust and follow his ideas for the campaign.
Once the oppositional parties begin filming, Larraín doesn't let go of the Bernal and Castro power dynamic -- they still have clients who need to sell Chile on products (here a Chilean soap opera), and they still have to put on their corporate faces to sell commerce to the same viewership: The ones who'll still be watching after the vote; that is the truth in advertising.
It is worth nothing that the two real individuals who inspired the character of Rene Saavedra are shown in the film, one as a cabinet member that recommends Pinochet wear a pearl in a commercial, and the other as the censor at the television network. Additionally, under the "media" section of the official website, you can watch many of the original commercials that were featured in the film.
As advertising and this film itself are very calculated entities, this reviewer also finds it noteworthy to mention the importance of the number 15 -- 15 years after Pinochet took office (1973), the vote on keeping his office took place (in 1988); both sides of "YES" and "NO" each received the same amount airtime (15 minutes) to persuade the public opinion; and 15 years after that vote of 1988, "No" receives its theatrical debut on February 15, 2013.