In 1988, Chile held a referendum to decide whether dictator Augusto Pinochet should stay in power. For one month, both sides could express their views in daily 15-minute TV slots. Pablo Larraín’s new feature, No, stars Gael García Bernal as adman René Saavedra, who is asked to lead the ‘No’ campaign.
When he first meets the opposition parties, René is bemused by their sample slot, which consists of archive footage of police violence overlaid by statistics of the regime’s abductions and torture. With his experience creating ads for fizzy drinks and microwaves, René knows how to get TV viewers’ attention: what the ‘no’ campaign needs, he says, is a bit more cheerfulness. Politically engaged opposition members pointedly ask him how torture can be cheerful, but finally agree to let him run the campaign in his own way.
No was shot using a vintage 80s U-matic camera, making it difficult to tell present-day recreations apart from original ads and archive footage. The director says that this seamless quality was exactly what he aimed for, but the problem is that he succeeded too well—the audience could almost believe that the whole film is a recreation and contains no archive footage at all. Faced with the anachronism of contemporary actors in a film that looks 25 years old, the audience risks missing the point, seeing the recreation as a manufactured, virtuoso effect. The film becomes mere pastiche. Of course, imitating the past did no harm to The Artist, either at the box office or at the Oscars: it will be interesting to see how No performs by comparison, as Chile’s first ever Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
While No seems anchored in the past aesthetically as well as historically, its postmodern themes provide a link to present-day concerns. When René’s politically active ex-wife finds out that he has been chosen to run the ‘no’ campaign, she dismisses his work as ‘a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy’. For her, the superficial mode of advertising is worthless, and incompatible with the serious concerns of politics. The somewhat disappointing truth is that people may ignore ads aimed at inciting moral outrage: they respond far better to René’s clichéd images of desirable lifestyles. This is as true today as it was in 1988. Similarly, René’s limited survey of ‘yes’ voters reveals that they don’t care for change because they are living well under the current system: for those untouched by the regime’s violence, that violence doesn’t seem real. The ‘yes’ side’s ads play on people’s materialism, warning that a new regime could take away the consumer goods that current regime has given them. The fascist fear-mongering is eerily familiar in today’s world, where the defenders of capitalism coerce us into accepting austerity measures that go against our best interests.
Billed as a political thriller, No is surprisingly uneventful: its narrative arc is virtually flat, and its characters underdeveloped. Still, García Bernal performs excellently as ever, and unexpected laughs make up for a lack of expected intrigue.