Movie Review: No
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
Many didn’t think it was possible — saying no to Gen. Augusto Pinochet. But after more than a decade-long bloody dictatorship, Chileans did just that during a 1988 plebiscite that overthrew the general who took the South American country’s reins in a U.S.-backed coup.
Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín’s Larraín’s Oscar-nominated film “No,” which opens in Austin on Friday, hones in on the crucial role of the “Vote No” advertising campaign that helped pave Chile’s path to democracy. Playing René Saavedra, a savvy, fictionalized advertising executive tapped to lead the victorious campaign, is acclaimed Mexican actor Gael García Bernal. Bernal deftly explores the layers of the character’s complexity, including his political apathy.
His detached nature leads you to wonder why Saavedra ever signed on to be part of the No advertising effort. Though we learn that his father was a Pinochet detractor and his family exiled, it’s hard to tell if he’s truly concerned with Chile’s future one way or the other. Is he merely energized by the thrill of selling democracy?
The Yes and No camps have 15 minutes to make their daily case on Chilean television, and Saavedra refuses to focus the No commercials on past human rights violations or violence during the Pinochet regime, insisting that that just doesn’t sell. Instead he digs into his bag of marketing tricks to produce segments that sell the idea of happiness with images of families picnicking, mimes, rainbows and all.
Members of the No camp accuse him of losing his perspective and compare his campaign spots to soda commercials. That’s not so far from the truth, especially with the No campaign’s catchy jingle, “Chile, happiness is coming!”
The film blurs the line between fact and fiction by weaving some Chilean television archival footage. And scenes shot with a vintage video camera give the contemporary footage that gritty 1980s feel from a time before high definition.
But Larraín’s directorial choice to include real footage left the door open for critics to emerge with complaints about the film’s omission of important facts, such as the community grass-roots effort to register Chileans to vote. Critics also questioned Larraín’s point of view, given his wealthy family’s pro-Pinochet ties. Larraín has defended his artistic decision to pursue the story through the lens of the publicists.
“No” doesn’t give a complete picture of the historical events, and Larraín definitely missed the opportunity to shine a light on the political groundwork built by his compatriots, but this isn’t a documentary no matter how seamlessly scenes are woven. Perhaps “No” can spark an interest in audiences to seek out documentaries or literature that can more effectively capture the history missing from the feature film.
Despite the limitations, “No” paints an engrossing picture of life in Chile in the 1980s. And Bernal continues to build on his successful body of work that over the years has made social and political issues relevant to a younger generation.
As Larraín’s version of the campaign reaches its final frenzied days, one can be left with mixed feelings since the audience is not necessarily emotionally invested in the citizen’s struggle but waiting to see if Saavedra’s marketing genius captures the hearts and minds of people with the somewhat superficial ads. And one can’t help but think, is there anything not for sale?