Editor’s Note: This review originally ran during the 2012 NYFF, but we’re re-running it now as the film opens in limited theatrical release.
The revolution will not only be televised, it will have commercials. At least that’s how it happens in No, Pablo Larraín’s new chronicle of the last days of Augusto Pinochet’s rule in Chile. It is the story of a military dictatorship that fell to an ad campaign, a cheerful one at that. This causes contradictions. On the one hand, the film emphasizes the joy of mass political action. Liberation is exciting, and people get excited about it when they are shown a brighter future. However, advertising is also the great commercial and consumerist art form, here being used as a tool by socialist and other left-wing opponents of the regime. On paper this seems extremely counter-intuitive, and No doesn’t lose sight of these tensions.
To turn this whirlwind of politics and confusion into a human story, Larraín builds his film around a single young man caught at the very center of the drama. René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) is an up-and-comer in the world of advertising, making a name for himself in a particularly important firm. Yet he suddenly finds himself faced with a life-changing decision. It is 1988, and due to international pressure on the Pinochet regime Chile is going to have a national plebiscite regarding the dictatorship. It would be the first free election in almost two decades. It was a simple proposition: “Yes” to keep Pinochet in power, “No” to transition to democracy. Each side would to have 15 minutes of time on the state television network, per day, to make their case. René, convinced by a family friend, ends up taking on the “No” campaign.
The programming that the anti-Pinochet politicians have already put together is a dark, depressing salvo against the government, focusing on the dictator’s many crimes against his people. They fill the screen with images of violence and repression, venting their anger and proclaiming revolution. René puts a stop to this attitude almost immediately, explaining how it goes against every principle of advertising. In its place he builds an optimistic campaign, full of happy faces and upbeat jingles, dancers and smiles. No incorporates the actual footage of this televised pitch to the people of Chile, as well as the mostly inept “Yes” campaign. Take a look:
It’s charmingly joyful and in hindsight it looks downright silly. Yet it works. The campaign motivates people like no one expected, energizing a nation that had been living in fear. This is one of the overriding themes of the film, that collective ecstasy can be the lifeblood of political change and mass resistance. This is not a new idea — Barbara Ehrenreich recently wrote about this sort of energy in her book, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. The idea is that public celebration is not only good for society, but it can be just the thing that helps a nation leap out of terror and oppression.
However, as René’s seasoned dissident allies would attest, it is often much more complex. Joy wouldn’t have gotten rid of Pinochet in 1974 or even in 1987. The plebiscite came from years of resistance and raising awareness on the outside, building international pressure. The violence of those in power continues even into the campaign itself, René and his colleagues finding themselves followed and threatened by a regime that can smell its own impending defeat. This is no party, at least not yet.
Moreover, advertising may occasionally step in and save the day, but it is not without its own ambiguities. René splits his time between the “No” programs and a campaign for the Chilean equivalent of The Bold and the Beautiful. His approach barely differs between the two products. Selling freedom is very, very similar to selling soap operas and soda. The consciousness of this tension is what raises No from a triumphant tale of independence to a work of real subtlety and introspection.
On top of that, Larraín has also created a film of fascinating stylistic independence. The entire thing is shot on old video equipment, dramatically lowering the quality of the images compared to what we’ve become used to in the 21stcentury. First of all, this makes sense on a practical level. No uses an awful lot of old TV footage, not only of the political campaigns themselves but also contemporary media coverage of the election and its associated rallies. To surround these 1988-quality images with fresh and crisp contemporary quality would ruin their urgency and distance them from the audience. Instead the transition is seamless. It’s reminiscent of what Gus Van Sant was trying to do with the various kinds of footage in Milk, but Larraín has taken it one step further.
No is an open conversation about the very means by which we understand ourselves and our societies, the way that we internalize advertising and news footage. It’s a manifestation of national memory.
The Upside: The original “No” campaign really holds up, or at least it manages to entertain almost 25 years later.
The Downside: Admittedly, it does take a few minutes to adapt to the rough quality of the images.
On the Side: Larraín cast the real-life members of the “No” campaign team as their rivals on the “Yes” campaign, giving them one more chance to poke fun at Pinochet’s ineffective self-advertising.