Oct 17, 2012

NYFF 2012: No

This third part of Pablo Larraín's trilogy about Pinochet's dictatorship in Chile is the most approachable and crowd pleasing of them all, if not the most rigorous. The movie that put him on the map, Tony Manero, is a carefully crafted, extremely disturbing look at a sociopathic character, played by the fantastic Alfredo Castro, who is obsessed with impersonating John Travolta at a time when his countrymen are being murdered and tortured. His second movie, Post-Mortem, also starring Castro, is also an unsavory tale about a weird man who is confronted by the ugly reality of his country as his job at the morgue becomes too busy. Throughout the trilogy, Larraín seems consumed by the idea of individual indifference in the face of tyranny.
This final installment, based on a play by Antonio Skármeta, and co-written by Pedro Peirano, the writer director of The Maid and Old Cats), follows the travails of advertising creative René Saavedra (a wonderful Gael García Bernal), as he reluctantly decides to help the Chilean opposition craft a TV campaign in order to win a referendum in the last years of that brutal regime. The US, after helping Pinochet gain power by orchestrating a coup d'etat against Salvador Allende, got qualms about the human rights abuses of Pinochet's 15-year dictatorship and pressured for a referendum, the first democratic elections to take place in that country since Pinochet took power. The movie is a fun, although rambling tour into how the opposing campaigns communicated to the Chilean people. "No" means the vote against Pinochet for another term.
Larraín, who has a penchant for stylishly ugly aesthetics, goes all the way by shooting the entire movie in low resolution video, which is what existed in those days. After a while, one gets used to the result, but everything looks hideous. However, this time he stays away from the ugly, violent grotesquerie of his other two films.
René's boss is a Pinochet sympathizer and rich bastard, played by the chamaleonlike Castro, whose agency helps the regime, because he actually supports it ideologically. It's a fun fight between two creative minds, and not necessarily between opposing ideologies, but between young and fresh, and conservative and hanging on to power by whatever means possible. René's boss likes to threaten and harass, much like the regime he represents.
Larraín gets the dynamics and milieu of advertising just right. Very much fun is watching René always use the same bullshit spiel ("Chilean society is ready for this") to sell different campaigns to different clients, regardless of the product. He is not concerned with ideology. He cares about image and fun looking spectacle and the kind of idiotic ads that somehow move a lot of product. The movie starts with an outrageous commercial for a cola called "Free", so hilariously tacky that not even an imaginative director like Larraín could have come up with it as a parody.  Larraín uses actual footage of brutally squelched demonstrations, Pinochet ads, opposition ads, and the commercials of the era and intersperses them with the story of René, in which actual leaders of the opposition movement appear, including Patricio Aylwin, the man who eventually won the election. The choice to unify the quality of the video to the actual footage pays off, even as one's eyes suffer, making the movie seem as real and in the historic moment as possible.
René fights the tendency of the opposition to sound like martyrs and recite the catalogue of horrors under Pinochet's murderous regime. He instinctively understands that even though it may all be true, people don't want to hear it. It dispirits them and makes them afraid to vote against such a well oiled repressive machine. Instead, he fights Pinochet with rainbows, young people dancing on the streets and Chileans eating baguettes at picnics (unrealistic, but it looks pretty, which is what matters). His clients feel this is offensive, but what choice do they have? Since the law is that each party has 15 minutes a night (an eternity) to present a platform, the No party allows René to do his rainbows and "We are the world" ripoffs, but they also sneak in some powerful truth telling ads. Meanwhile, on the other side, the debate hinges upon whether the Generalissimo should always appear in his medal bedecked uniform or wear civilian clothes. When they decide to poke fun at the rainbows and the happy dancing, it backfires, since as René knows, the audience hates negative reinforcement. As he sees himself losing the battle against frivolity and optimism, René's boss bitterly muses that the "Yes" campaign has too many military men, too many fat military wives, too many parades and uniforms. It is as stale and putrid as can be, as befits where it comes from.
Larrain is a great satirist and in No he lets loose and spends a lot of time going from one campaign to the other, and including a lot of fascinating original footage, but which unfortunately makes the energy of the movie flag. Still, No is a very engaging, original, smart film about a man that ends up doing something heroic for his country without really wanting to; an unlikely hero without principles, except that of doing what he knows to do best. García Bernal's stunned reaction to the results of the election, his gradual overcoming with emotion as he goes out into the streets anonymously and the enormity of what happened seeps in, is a gorgeous piece of silent acting. There is great joy at Pinochet's defeat but the movie ends in a bittersweet note as René goes back to selling bullshit, a changed man. The question is whether Chile has really changed with him.

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