TV that matters
No, by Chilean director Pablo Larraín (Tony Manero, NYFF 2008; Post Morten, NYFF 2010), is the richly imagined account of an ad campaign, one that happens to have a peculiar significance, because it led directly to voting down General Augusto Pinochet’s fifteen-year dictatorship in a 1988 referendum. Many roles are resolved into a few in what is nonetheless a rich canvas headed by Gael García Bernal in one of his best performances in years. The only troubles are that the narrative meanders and that the outcome is, if you’re aware of history, very obvious, and the screenplay cannot contrive to get around this. One also may feel Larraín has made a considerable sacrifice in abandoning the fabulously dark and sinister mood of his previous two features. But if this movie works with the American artthouse audience, it could push the director into the international mainstream in a way that his sublimely creepy two earlier films could not.
Those previous two films starred the great Alfredo Castro, first as a petty thief and murderer, then as a spineless coroner who has the job of recording the autopsy of the assassinated president Salvador Allende, Chile’s elected leftist leader who was killed in a CIA-supported coup in 1973. In both cases Larraín approaches the Pinochet regime’s devastatingly effect on the hearts and minds of the Chilean people in a way that is indirect but extraordinarily vivid. Tony Manero has the more lowly and despicable protagonist, a zombie-like fellow who lives to immitate John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, but isn’t very good at it, and is capable of killing an old woman just to steal her little TV. Post Mortem’s focus is on death too, however, allowing for the development of its own slimy, sepulchral mood. Even the look of these two films is creeply. They have a sickly greenish tinge.
For No, Larraín adopts a brighter palette, though his decision to use virtually extinct Sony U-matic cassette video cameras from the early Seventies for the entire film stays with his preference for a distinctive, ugly look — which in this case makes everything throughout harmonize with the advertising TV clips and archival footage from the period, as does the square Academy ratio of the film. This time instead of approaching the regime crabwise, he faces it head on. When young ace adman René Saavedra (García Bernal), reluctantly at first, takes on the campaign to promote the anti-Pinochet “No” vote in fifteen-minute late-night TV broadcasts, he is joined by members of the opposition. There are many parties and the film could get lost in leftist in-fighting, but from the start the focus is on advertising strategies. In the very first scene we watch Saavedra show an ad for a cola drink called “Free”, and the businessmen balk because it’s flashy and American-looking and has a mime in it. And this isn’t just to create atmosphere. It’s a hint of the same visual style Saavedra will want to use in his nightly anti-regime TV spots.
The first of many dark jokes is that Saavedra not only wants to ignore the dark side of the regime, but really doesn’t care much about politics, though he may like impressing his estranged leftist wife Veronica (Antonia Zegers of Post Morten). Saavedra is the son of a dissident who was exiled when he was young after the Allende government was toppled (which might explain García Bernal’s Mexican accent). But — and this is the relevance of this movie to American politics — what Saavedra cares about is snappy advertising style. He insists from the start that spots about the “disappeared ones” and torture — the horrors of the dictatorship and the primary reasons for voting it out — are too downbeat for adverts and should be replaced by zingy, upbeat imagers of happy people picnicking, rainbow flags, a tall man walking up a pathway, and so on, and happy jingles about freedom (like the cola). The second irony is that he’s partly right. Pinochet represents hopelessness for the majority of the population and almost anything else represents light and positivity.
As No progresses the narrative gets a little chaotic and it’s not always clear what we’re seeing, but the substance of the film is nothing more than an inventive unreeling of the opposition “No” campaign TV spots, interspersed with scenes from Saavedra’s life, meetings of government officials, and glimpses of the “Yes” adverts. There are moments when the “No” adverts seem absolutely ridiculous, others when they’re actually moving. But we’re continually aware that however crucial they might be, this medium is still all just flash and filigree. Saavedra’s boss Lucho Guzmán (Larraín’s previous star Alfredo Castro, looking this time only vaguely sinister) is a devious fellow who is actually running the pro-Pinochet “Yes” ad campaign — covertly, pretending he’s only a “consultant” for it — while working with Saavedra on other non-political ads. Meanwhile he’s threatening to “fuck up” the “No” crew good and vainly trying to bribe Saavedra off the “No” campaign by offering him a partnership in the firm. Saavedra refuses, but it seems for him more an ego trip than an act of idealism.
Behind Guzman’s lures and threats there is a greater external menace, highlighted by the vulnerability of Saavedra’s living with his innocent young mop-head son Simon (Pascal Montero), whose custody he shares with Veronica. There are cars following him and the other “No” campaign crew around and a vague suspicion that they may simply be wiped out or “disappeared.” How can anybody believe that this will be a genuine election? It’s assumed that Pinochet will insure his winning, but Veronica believes that the late-night “No” broadcasts will help awaken the public anyway. At the same time she tells Saavedra that his ads are just “a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy,” and that in working on this campaign he’s just playing the regime’s game. Nothing is simple. All is ironic. And everything matters.
While Larraín’s earlier films were small, cozy productions, this one is ambitious. The elaborate ads, involving large casts and multiple locaitons, are further augmented by the film’s realistic crowd scenes of demonstrations and repression by riot police. The film’s progression seems somewhat haphazard despite the obvious and strongly upbeat finale of the election, but this doesn’t keep the proceedings from being compulsively watchable because of the sheer fascination of the rich material put together for the TV spots, the arguments about style and tone etc., and the deft minute-to-minute craft of editor Sergio Armstrong. García Bernal’s understated performance (and the frequent presence of young Simon in key, scary moments) makes the film feel intimate despite the collective focus; the cast is all good. “Mad Men,” with its preference for soap opera plotting to actual detail about advertising work, was never like this. Larraín has made a movie where propaganda content actually matters in all its specific detail, and it couldn’t be more relevant to a time of Middle East revolutions and European and American elections in which regimes could rapidly fall. The film, incidentally, uses archival footage of Pinochet himself at numerous points; no actor plays the dictator. This time the writing is not by Larraín but Pedro Peirano.
No, 116min., debuted in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight, also shown at Locarno, San Sebastián, and Telluride. The official entry of Chile for Best Foreign Language Film at the 85th Academy Awards 2013. UK release Feb. 8, 2012, US Feb. 15, France Apr. 3. Screened for this review as a Main Slate selection of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, Oct. 12, 2012. It definitely seems one of a handful of the most important films of the NYFF, and Pablo Larraín, with three distinctive films under his belt at only 36, clearly on his way to international importance as a director.
Director: Pablo Larraín
Writer: Pedro Peirano (screenplay)
Stars: Gael García Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Néstor Cantillana
Runtime: 118 min
Country: Chile, France, USA