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Friday, March 8, 2013

Review: No

Revolution can take many forms, it can be as bloody as those that occurred in France, it can be an evolution of thought that while shedding little crimson can still be a tidal change, or it can be a mix of the two. The latter of which is the subject of Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain's No. I have very little familiarity with his work; on the other hand I am a very big fan of Gael Garcia Bernal, who performances I've enjoyed stretching back to Amores Perros and Y Tu Mama Tambien. No, having only recently begun its release schedule in the U.S., was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, losing out to Amour. I went in with some limited expectations, I came out thinking this is the best film I've seen so far this year.

No centers around the 1988 national referendum (or plebiscite) on the continued reign of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile. The people of Chile are to be given a choice of "Si" or "No" on election day, and the two campaigns are given a 15 minute block of advertising space apiece on each day leading up to the election. Rene (Bernal) is an advertising executive, and a divorced father who meets with his old friend who happens to be in charge of the No campaign. He is hesitant to join as he feel like the election is most likely going to be rigged, but after seeing his ex-wife (Antonia Zeggers) being mistreated by the authorities while under arrest he decides to apply his trade to assist their efforts. At the same time, his employer, Lucho (Alfredo Castro) is hired on by the Si campaign. No covers the war of television advertising and rising tensions over the 27 days prior to the vote, with each new No campaign providing heightened threats to Rene, his team, and his young son.

From the very first frame, you recognize that Larrain is making a very in your face stylistic choice. Utilizing the cheapest camera he could find from the era, No has a very cheap look. You'd be forgiven if you thought you were watching something filmed with a 90's home camcorder. But the intentionally sepia tonal quality of the picture adds a beautiful sense of authenticity to the proceedings and allows the visuals to seemlessly blend in with the archival footage used from the era, and there is alot of it. Viewers get a chance to watch many of the highlights of both campaigns efforts, and the questions asked aren't exactly a black and white shade of "this side is the right side", but more morally gray. Pinochet saved the people from starvation, but he also ruled the country with an iron fist, and the fear of the unknown amongst the populace is prevalent. That is, until escalation sets in.

Again, authenticity is the key word. Mad Men, AMC's titular drama, is likely my favorite show on television. No likely will be compared to Mad Men in the way it presents evolution of a culture by way of advertising and the creative minds behind it. But for all its positives (and there are many), Mad Men's attempts at cultural zeitgeist are hollow, because we know that advertising in the sixties while memorable didn't necessarily drive mass change in the way its consumers actively thought. On the other hand, No presents something far deeper. Pedro Peirano's script asks questions about how much advertising can drive those who are fearful into action, what sort of messaging works best with this kind of populace, and how easily is power wrested away from those who have it? And not everyone within his campaign is a fan of the brighter, more optimistic tactics used by Rene. Conversely, it's also a terribly funny film in parts, which is amazing considering the subject matter. No has a very Argo-like quality, in that it injects humor to break up some of the oppressiveness that sort of bleeds around the edges but never quite takes the film over. There's also just something very funny about ads from that era anyway, through dated-ness and bizarre imagery (what the heck is a mime doing in a political ad anyway?). Had Larrain chosen a more standard lensing style, it may have risked the advertisements overpowering his narrative. Yet, because they are all visually of a piece, it all locks into place.

While the ensemble is full of wonderful performances, this film is Bernal's through and through. Bernal, somehow still a stranger to mainstream American audiences, despite great performances in Babel and The Science of Sleep, completely rules the screen. His performance as Rene is one full of depth, stoney silence, and occasional slackerism. His internal and external pressures are just barely worn on his sleeve. There are two beautiful scenes that best encompass this: when he kicks his son out of the living room so he himself can play with the model train set, which allows him to think through his advertising strategy and secondly, when he drops him off at his ex's house. As he walks away, an observant viewer can almost see the tears forming in his eyes, but he has to fight them back. There is work to be done. There's also an incredible push and pull between Rene and Lucho, as Lucho offers him a partnership to step down from the No campaign to which Rene refuses. This begins the souring between them both, and after Lucho takes a position with the Si side, they still find themselves having to work together on microwave campaigns, and ads for telenovellas. Their sniping at each other is occasional hilarious, occasionally uncomfortable. While everyone else is fairly static, Rene and Lucho undergo very well-drawn character evolutions. Both of their final shots stuck with me almost as much as the catchy hand-clapper that signified the No group's efforts.

Much like revolutions, there are many types of historical docu-dramas: there are those that go for the slightly saccharine "important" moments (Lincoln), the kind that seek to highlight nitty-gritty details (Zero Dark Thirty), and then there are the type of films that flatly entertain while still maintaining a thematic hold on their audience, giving them something to talk about on the ride home. No, much like Argo, slots easily in that final descriptive. It's even somewhat richer in that it doesn't end tidily. Sure, the big important plot driver is resolved, but we don't see all the character resolutions even for our main players. It's true to life in that way, and I can't wait to see it again.

I give it an A-

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