Pablo Larraín | 112 mins | TV | 4:3 | Chile, USA, France & Mexico / Spanish | 15 / R
1988: due to international pressure, Chile’s dictator, General Pinochet, has acquiesced to a vote on whether he should continue ruling the country. Despite the violent takeover he orchestrated, and subsequent murders and ‘disappearances’, the country has prospered under his rule, and many — especially influential affluent people — are keen for him to stay. The anti-Pinochet “no” campaign are allowed a daily slot on state-controlled television in the run up to the election, and they hire advertising exec René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) to mastermind the campaign. Cue internal conflict — the politicos want dour films highlighting Pinochet’s evil; René wants to use the language of advertising to sell the promise of a happy future — before the campaign itself finally gets underway, and the “no” campaigners become targets of the ruling regime’s evil tactics…
That’s most of the plot anyway, but the devil is naturally in the details — I mean, you probably know how it’s going to end, right? It’s how writer-director Pablo Larraín (adapting from a play by Antonio Skármeta) tells this tale that matters, and fortunately he does so with considerable class and intellect, albeit with the occasional obtuseness of Art cinema.
Most strikingly, the whole thing is shot on genuine ’80s videocameras, complete with poor resolution, colour bleeding, and all that jazz. Sounds like a pretentious gimmick, doesn’t it? It actually works rather well: it quickly evokes the era, it allows genuine news footage from the period to blend seamlessly with freshly-shot material (and it really does), and you quickly stop noticing. Or at least I did, but then I also watch a fair amount of classic TV, so I’m used to 4:3 black bars and the picture quality of video (though to suggest something like classic Doctor Who has picture quality as poor as this is an insult to the professionals who made it and those who restored it for DVD). In an era where the goal is often clean-as-possible ultra-HD images, it’s almost nice to see something so left-field used for excellent effect; a bit like when Pixar got over digital precision and started using soft-focus and the like in Ratatouille.
It seems many have made comparisons between No and the TV series Mad Men, because both are period-set pieces about ad men and the power of the work they produce. It’s a superficial comparison, though. For all its funny camerawork and subtitles, No is a much more straightforward story than Matthew Weiner’s frequently allegorical and oblique TV series. At the same time, Larraín’s film can be trickier to follow, guiding us less clearly through the thought processes behind the adverts, for example. Both have their merits, but the similarity is an incidental one — liking Mad Men does not mean No is a film for you, and vice versa. Unless you really like to see behind-the-scenes of advertising in any form, that is.
And on another aside, is it telling that Channel 4 premiered No in the run up to the Scottish independence referendum? The two votes had surprisingly similar results: about 45% for Yes and 55% for No; except in Chile it was “no” that was the vote for change. Very different political situations, of course: one vote was trying to overthrow an oppressive right-wing regime that had brought misery and instilled suspicious pseudo-Americanised values for far too long, and the other was trying to get rid of General Pinochet. Ho-ho-ho! But seriously, there’s not really a comparison between the brutal military regime that ruled Chile — which nonetheless many were happy with because it had brought modernisation and prosperousness for some — and the voluntary union between the rest of the UK and Scotland. I’m sure some of “the 45”, as they now call themselves, would identify with those battling for freedom in this film, but I think that might be taking it a bit far.
No has enough of the thriller about it to be entertaining and overcome its occasional desire to be needlessly Artsy. It’s also about the power of people to democratically bring about change, it’s lesson here perhaps being that for that to happen you need to stop lecturing the public on things they “should” care about and engage them on their own terms. Something a lot of organisations could benefit from learning.
No is on Film4 tonight at 1am.
This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.