‘No’ gets the critics vote of approval

By Jonathan Smith

Sony Picture Classics

Largely overlooked at this year’s Oscars, Pablo Larrain’s “No,” — which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film — is a slick take on the classic election battle. Simply constructed, yet beautifully anchored in its two settings of tumultuous Chile and the 1980s, the film creates an engaging narrative on a relatively unknown historical event. “No” is an innovative examination of the powers of modern marketing in changing public opinion in political campaigns.

The film centers on  Chile in 1988, where after 16 years of repressive leadership, self-elected dictator General Augusto Pinochet is pressured by the international community into holding a referendum to legalise his position. Chile’s population must simply vote either yes, for Pinochet to rule for another 8 years, or no, to end his reign. Indifferent about the decision, René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), a successful advertising executive, reluctantly takes up the offer to lead the “No” campaign to oust Pinochet — a man guilty of oppressive leadership involving beatings, executions and torture.

Each side is allotted 15 minutes of television advertising time each day for one month, in order to sway the voters one way or another.

Although the crux of the film is found in the battle between these opposing campaigns, there are internal problems. While Rene struggles to convince conservative politicians of his innovative advertising ideals he is also, dealing with his estranged wife and their young child.

Director Larrain’s biggest success in “No” stems from his eye for detail in perfectly recreating a time where microwaves were an exciting new novelty, modern marketing was flourishing and political turmoil was rife. It is comparable to “Argo” in its attention to period particulars, yet, “No” takes the entirely believable 1980s Chile a step further by filming with grainy, three-quarter inch Sony U-matic magnetic tape, which was largely used at the time in the country. The use of this outdated film not only reflects the gritty struggle facing Chile, but also sets the film in a frame that means it could possibly be conceived as documentary of events at the time, providing another layer of realism.

Due to the nature of the story, “No” had potential to not only drag on but also be a mundane journey, yet the film manages to avoid these pitfalls with consummate ease. Paced to perfection, tensions escalate as the campaign swings back and forth. The introduction of Rene’s rival and boss, Lucho Guzmán (Alfredo Castro), who takes the reins as the rival “Yes” campaign as an advisor to Pinochet, adding an extra level of intrigue to proceedings.

The film finds a perfect balance between bringing necessary gravitas to make the story believable, while being extremely funny and charming. Rene’s “No” adverts are hilariously ridiculous, as they mimic the adverts of 80s-America, as all involved are singing and dancing in their unbelievably idealistic world. Absurd to everyone but eagle eye marketers, Rene devises the perfect way to make an “attractive product” out of democracy, something that is common practice in this day and age.

Rene’s indifference towards the political agenda means he treats the advertising campaign as he does his other commercial contracts with Cola companies and television soap operas — simply selling a product, in this case, happiness.

Rene unveils his initial advert with the same nonsense rhetoric which he uses for all of his work: “What you are going to see now, is in line with the current social context. After all, today, Chile thinks in its future.” Rene’s apathy allows the audience to see events unfold from an objective standpoint as he looks upon the campaign from his mind as a marketing craftsman. While we are clearly rooting for the “No” campaign throughout, it is Rene’s ability to separate personal feelings from what will sell — unlike the politicians — which brings a unique perspective to the narrative.

The climax of “No” is greatly aided by the fact that most people who see it will be unaware of the outcome of the referendum, meaning that when the campaigns finally finish, the audience is left waiting with bated breath. While Larrain does nothing groundbreaking with “No,” he does all of the basics with absolute precision. It’s his direction that breathes life into the story and stops it from stagnating during its 118 minutes. Flawless without breaking any new cinematic boundaries, “No” certainly is an enjoyable, stylish and intriguing film that will leave audiences entirely satisfied.

“No” is currently showing at Amherst cinema.

Jonathan Smith can be reached at can be reached at [email protected]