Can a military dictatorship fall to an advertising campaign, a cheerful one at that?
The affirmative answer to that question is “No” the 2012 Chilean political drama directed by Pablo Larrain about the twilight of Pinochet’s regime, narrating one of the most seminal moments in the country’s history:
In 1988, Pinochet, due to international pressure, was forced to call a referendum on his presidency. It was a simple proposition: Vote YES and Pinochet would stay in power for another eight-year term; vote NO and the country would hold free elections.
The film tells the story of how, against all odds, with scarce resources and serious threats, the opposition leaders for the NO managed to devise a successful campaign and convince the population into putting an end to the 16-year military regime.
Pinochet was one of the continent’s most brutal rulers: under his repressive regime, tens of thousands of Chileans were “disappeared,” tortured and killed; hundreds of thousands were forced into exile. On such premises, it is not surprising that motivating people to vote against him was not an easy task, many citizens were afraid to vote altogether, thinking it might cause them to be targeted, and some doubted the idea that Pinochet would honour the results of the vote in the first place.
A heartfelt and involving account of Chile’s recent history, the film is a clever, darkly funny perspective on modern democracy and human nature and also a cynical account of the correlation between politics and media, delivered through a fascinating case study on the huge power advertising has in influencing hearts and minds.
Loosely based on a play by Antonio Skarmeta (famous for his novel that inspired the movie “Il Postino”), No is a combination of documentary footage (about 30 percent of the film) and fictionalised material filmed in a kind of video realist style using rebuilt vintage Sony U-matic video cameras to give the film a uniform, coherent 80’s look. Larrain describes it as a pastiche with “a strange balance between documentary and fiction.”
Preceded by Tony Manero and Post Mortem, No completes Larrain’s satire trilogy about life under dictator Pinochet. The film was screened at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival where it won the top prize in the Directors’ Fortnight section and it was selected as Chile’s bid for the Foreign Language Oscar at the 85th Academy Award.
The plot centres on the internal workings of the No campaign (made up of 17 political parties) during the month preceding the plebiscite. Each side is allowed fifteen-minute television slots per night to make its case, after which regularly scheduled programming, that is, blatantly pro-Pinochet programming, would resume and no contrary opinion was permitted.
Given the overwhelming odds stacked against them, no one, not even the movement’s most committed followers, gave the “No” campaign a chance.
That’s where the apolitical, unheroic ad-man comes in: Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcìa Bernal), a fictionalized hip marketing executive who is engaged by the NO coalition to mastermind the television ad campaign.
When approached by opposition manager José Tomás Urrutia, Rene agrees to help them for the impossible “No” vote, at this point more intrigued by the challenge of pitching a superior product than contributing to his country’s freedom from tyranny. His father was an anti-Pinochet activist, but Rene is neither a man of the right nor the left, he is rather a capitalist tool and apparently a happy one. As an advertising whiz he embodies a consumer society in which everything from democracy to freedom, is up for sale.
As can be expected, his unorthodox modern methods inevitably clash with the ideals of the dispossessed Chilean left who wants to use this rare opportunity to denounce Pinochet’s horrific human rights abuses. When Rene is asked an opinion on a video showcasing a collection of grim images reminding Chileans of their years of suffering, his simple answer is:
-“I don’t think that sells” –
Saavedra tells the campaigners that if they really want to win, they need to focus on what is at the heart of the multiple agendas and interests of people and parties.
Joy and hope, he says: That’s what Chile needs.
His pragmatic instinct tells him the answer is a joyful, colourful, and upbeat campaign one that would meet people’s desire to move forward, away from the dark dangerous past filled with death, disappearances and pain and on into a brighter and happier future.He proposes happiness as their manifesto enshrined in a rainbow logo and accompanied by silly sketches and a catchy jingle: ‘Chile, happiness is coming’.
Rene’s vision is not received well by his colleagues, who accuse him of trivializing their campaign by selling their resistance to tyranny as some Pepsi alternative to Pinochet’s Coke, nor by his ex wife and mother of his son, Veronika, an ardent activist who thinks voting in the plebiscite will only validate Pinochet’s fraudulent referendum. No’s most cutting satire is how much Saavedra’s political ads resemble his recent campaign for diet cola. And the ironic outcome is that they work. His “silly” approach starts obtaining the first positive results and things rapidly begin to swing in favour of the No’s provocative campaign motivating people like no one expected.
This causes Pinochet’s people to take serious countermeasures; they hire Lucho Guzman (Alfredo Castro), Rene’s boss to counteract the comedic and joyful campaign, thus exposing him to an uneasy conflict of interest. Then they also start intimidating him and other members of the coalition through a series of menacing threats. Rene is worried especially for his family’s safety but he doesn’t give up and keeps working until the last day.
In the end his tenacity pays off and voters show up at the polls in masses: On October 5th 1988 with a 56 percent “No” vote Chile deposes its dictator.
What raises No from a triumphant collective tale of independence to a work of real subtlety and introspection is the unusual choice to concentrate on such an ambiguous, detached main character and even more so the refusal to succumb to blockbuster standards and turn him into an hero. Fleshed out by Bernal’s impressive, understated, performance, Rene is one of those complex, imperfect characters whose flaws run a tight race with his virtues but in the end always manage to win the audience’s sympathy. His seeming apathy towards the country’s future and his apparent lack of emotional involvement in the campaign could appear as appallingly cynical yet somehow he still comes off as a likeable character. This ambiguity, fluently acted by enigmatic Bernal, seems to be the point. He is the picture of the quintessential, detached professional who is more into the challenge of the “sale” than the ideology but still he is brave enough to put his life and career at risk for it. His internal motivations are never clear, instead they always seem just out of sight, hidden in between the lines of the script, and every time we seem to glimpse at some sort of political awakening in him, he immediately does something to contradict it. His ambivalence is frustrating but ultimately fascinating.
This is most evident in the climactic scene of popular jubilation after the referendum when Rene walks, silent and apparently unmoved, through the celebrating crowds. The next day he is back at his day job, alongside his pro-Pinochet boss, selling a soap opera and using the same pitch he had used for the No campaign.
The irony here is pretty clear: freedom appears to be a marketable product, just like soap operas or soda. In the end, it seems, the only thing that matters is what works.
This provocative message alongside Larraín’s choice to focus exclusively on the perspective of the ad guy rather than the collective political action gave rise to a heated debate in Chile where the film’s reception has been more mixed. Some of the leaders of the real-life No campaign protested that the film gets several big facts wrong and fundamentally fails to address the importance of the opposition’s long-term ground game. In particular Genaro Arriagada, director of the real-life No campaign, said the film was a caricature, a gross oversimplification that has nothing to do with reality. Many exponents of the Chilean left agreed with this criticism arguing that reducing the campaign to a series of marketing ads subverts the true nature of the victory failing to acknowledge the intense grass-root campaign to register 7.5 millions voters which was pivotal to their success at the polls.
The criticism is not without merit, the film does leave out some fundamental steps, however, as Mr. Larraín said “the movie is just a fragment” that never aimed to “simplify the whole No process to a logo.” Even though the film is shot to give the impression of authenticity, No is just realistic fiction not a testament. As playwriter Antonio Skármeta said: “A work of art does not have to be reduced to history or represent history, in this film, the director used reality to produce something different that is provocative and interesting, that reflects the views of a different, younger generation.”
No is powerful cinema and the debate it provoked is just another element to testify it.
A simple yet intense historical drama about one of the most important and complex events in Chilean contemporary history told with innovative cinematography, incisive dialogue and great acting, but more importantly at the heart of the film is an inspirational tale about accomplishing the impossible through hope and optimism.