It lost to “Amour” this past February for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards, and it was the very first Chilean film ever nominated for that honor. And it’s pretty darn good, too. It’s a fictionalized treatment of the very real attempt to oust dictator Augusto Pinochet from serving another 8-year term. The historic 1988 plebiscite, and the accompanying advertising campaign, broke things down for the people of Chile in very simple terms. They could either vote “Yes” or they could vote “No”. But, of course, the road to casting that vote couldn’t be a greater distance from simple. And director Pablo Larrain expertly demonstrates for you why. Employing the risky decision of using low definition, Sony U-matic magnetic tape to try to seamlessly blend the actual 1988 footage with the newly minted material starring international star Gael Garcia Bernal as advertising man Renee Saavedra. It’s a bold technique that works wonders for the piece. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with your DVD copy—it’s supposed to look that way. The color bleeds and light flares are intentional, and all part of the strive for period authenticity. I greatly admire this maverick approach.
General Augusto Pinochet has tyrannically ruled Chile for 15 years. However, increasing international political pressure pushes for a 1988 plebiscite which could end the decade and a half regime abuses that include strong-arm tactics such as death threats and torture. Rene Saavedra(the subtle and excellent Mr. Bernal)is recruited by what comes to be known as the “No” side. Daily television political advertising will allow 15 minutes for each side to push their agenda. If the “No” vote eventually wins, Pinochet is history. If “Yes” votes garner the higher count from the population of Chile, the dictator remains. Of course, almost immediately, Saavedra is aggressively intimidated by Pinochet’s people. This is made increasingly intense by the fact that Rene is raising his eight year-old son all by himself, as his estranged, absentee wife(and the child’s mother)is perpetually involved in dangerous, radical protests against the Pinochet regime. But despite the constant pressure from the dictator’s supporters, Saavedra continues to insist that the “No” campaign use upbeat measures to overthrow Pinochet. Dancing models, clowns, subtle visions of better tomorrows involving picnics in the park, and flamboyant strokes like performers sticking out their tongues to reveal stickers emblazoned with the word “No”. With the vast majority of the artistic community on the “No” side, the “Yes” campaign is relegated to dry, boring ads containing economic data and little cross-demographic appeal.
If you know your history, the outcome of “No” is never really in doubt, but getting there is half the fun. Watching the increasingly enthusiastic and outlandish commercials is a gas. And because of the director’s filming technique it is near-impossible to ascertain what is new and what is from the archival vaults. Poignant moments of clarity do occur though when we watch the impossibly youthful footage of American stars such as Richard Dreyfuss, Jane Fonda and Christopher Reeve calling for the removal of General Pinochet. “No” has been hit with some charges from the Chilean community of oversimplification of these events. And it’s also worth noting that the screenplay by Pedro Peirano is sporadically guilty of falling into some standard thriller traps. But the overall impact of “No” cannot be dismissed. And it’s a valuable snapshot of a mostly unrepresented, pivotal slice of history. And its skillful depiction incites me to give a big bravo to “No”. Grade: A-