Commercial appeal: Pablo Larrain's 'No' captures Chile's 1988 political ad frenzy

Pablo Larraín’s trilogy about his native Chile began with Tony Manero (2007), named for John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever. Set in the darkest days of the Pinochet dictatorship, it follows Raúl (Alfredo Castro), a psychopath who dreams of winning a national dance contest. The second, Post Mortem (2010), goes back in time to the 1973 coup d’etat which placed Pinochet in power. The third, No, to be released on Feb. 15 by Sony Pictures Classics, is about Pinochet’s peaceful exit. It is not triumphant. Nor does Larraín now harbor much optimism for Chile’s future.

The director, born a few years after the coup in which President Salvador Allende was assassinated, has boyhood memories of Chile’s lowering sky. “If I think about those days, I don’t remember the sun,” he says by telephone from Santiago. “Of course, it was sunny, but my very first memory of the 1980s is that I grew up in a country that was cloudy.” These recollections apparently inspired the unearthly, eldritch light of the first two films in the trilogy. “I don’t think,” Larraín surmises, “that there is one single shot of the sun in Post Mortem.” Sunlit exteriors appear in No, although they do not signal hope.

No’s protagonist, advertising executive René (Gael Garcia Bernal), is reminiscent of his predecessors in the trilogy. “They are all the result of dictatorship, and none of them is conscious of that,” Larraín says. “None of them know that they are the way they are, and if they have something in common, it is that they are not concerned about the social or political situation of the country.”

In Tony Manero, Raúl has adapted perfectly to Chile’s despair; he lives in the moment, taking what he needs through crimes of opportunity. Mario (Castro), the morgue clerk in Post Mortem, unlike his co-workers, is unmoved by Allende’s death, and by the other bodies delivered by the truckload after the putsch. His detachment spells his survival in Pinochet-era Chile. In No, had the apolitical René treated the campaign to unseat Pinochet any differently than the one to promote a new microwave oven, he might have disappointed his Socialist clients.

Larraín, who is 36, was an adolescent in 1988 when a national referendum was held to decide whether Pinochet should remain in office. That plebiscite is the subject of No. “If you are not concerned about the political reality of your own country, then you are a number, and that’s dangerous,” the filmmaker observes. “In No, the character is more connected somehow because he wants to change things, but I think he doesn’t know why he’s doing it.” One spot of hope is René’s estranged wife Veronica (Antonia Zegers), who is a committed activist.

No is loosely derived from Burning Patience (1983), a novel and film by Antonio Skarmeta, which in turn inspired Michael Radford’s Il Postino. All are fictionalized accounts of a friendship between a postman and the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Skarmeta lived in exile during the Pinochet years, and Neruda, who was a diplomat in Allende’s government, died shortly after Pinochet seized power.

In the Oscar-nominated No, René and his business partner Lucho (Castro) are a composite of the real-life advertising men who led the “Yes” and “No” campaigns. The two become rivals in the movie, but in the end they work together on an ad campaign for a telenovela. Larraín recalls that at first when it was suggested to him that he tell this story, he was appalled at the thought of it being a dark comedy. “It was an amazing time,” he says. “We were able to express our feelings about Pinochet in the public media.” Before the vote, the “Yes” and “No” campaigns were given equal time to air their commercials on television. That inspired the national dialogue also depicted in the movie.

Larraín and his screenwriter, fellow Chilean Pedro Peirano (The Maid), began their project by watching the archival campaign footage together. “Pedro and I are about the same age, and his family was for the ‘No,’ and my family was from the ‘Yes’ side,” Larraín explains, recalling that the distance of 24 years rid them of any lingering nostalgia. At first, they laughed at the dated commercials. “There were a lot of things that we did not remember,” he notes, “but everything we felt as we watched the footage is in the screenplay.”

Larraín suggests that No defies categorization into one cinematic genre, yet he does not quibble over its characterization as a deeply cynical view of Chilean society. “René is a metaphor for what happened in my country,” the director says. “The very first line of the film is the same as the last.” In that dialogue, René points out to his clients that the campaign, first for soda in Pinochet-era Chile, and then for the telenovela, post-Pinochet, reflects Chile’s “social context.” For he and Lucho, it is unaltered. “Many things have changed since Pinochet left, but so much remains of that era,” Larraín explains. Reversing Allende’s Socialist reforms, the dictator shifted Chile to its current capitalist economy, from which the advertising men emerged.

No is Larraín’s fourth feature as a director. He often writes or co-writes screenplays, and collaborates with the same cast and crew. Zegers appears throughout the trilogy, and Castro, a close friend, is in all four of Larraín’s films. “Alfredo has something I really admire, which is a sense of mystery and darkness,” the director says. “If you aimed a camera at him and he did nothing, the audience would be interested in him.”

The star of No, on the other hand, was new to Larraín. “I asked Gael several times before shooting started whether he wanted a speech coach,” he recalls, worried that the actor would not master his character’s Chilean accent. “He kept saying ‘No.’” Bernal is Mexican, and the differences in the Spanish language from country to country are comparable to those of American English and British English. “So, we started shooting and Gael began talking, and he sounded just like us,” the director says, adding that he had “no idea” how Bernal accomplished this feat.

Early on in the project, Larraín, together with Sergio Armstrong, his director of photography, decided to match the look of the low-resolution broadcast footage from the plebiscite with that of their movie. “To me, when you switch back and forth, you can tell which stock is on the screen, and it breaks the illusion,” Larraín explains. “The audience would be in and out of the movie emotionally.” To film No, four 1980s-era movie cameras made by Uchiyama, a Japanese manufacturer, were assembled from about 20 found in the United States. “We shot using two cameras all the time, and each one would react very differently to each light situation,” Larraín recalls. “Because it is a camera system that works on heat, when you have a lot of light in the shot, it burns part of the picture.” These are visible in the movie as “ghosts” around bursts of illumination.

The cameras were known by their letters, “A” being the best and “D” the worst. “They use an obsolete analog video system that has tubes,” Larraín says. “We had to fix them all the time. They were like people to us.”

Developing the film and tweaking post-production processes designed for digital media posed other challenges. “We had to go to technological museums, for instance,” he says, “and ask whether we could use their editing machines.” Larraín, who prefers the “texture” of 35mm, likes to think of his movies, all shot on film, as “unexpected journeys.” “You don’t know where you are going at the beginning of a movie,” he observes. “If you control things, and design every single shot, and you have a lot of technology, then you know where you are going. To me, that’s very dangerous.”

While all of the protagonists in Larraín’s trilogy play as dramatic characters, none of them changes in the course of the film. “Do you know many people who actually change?” Larraín asks. “The American tradition in movies has created this idea that the character must change and learn something and, in most cases, must be a better person in the end than they were at the beginning. I think that is an idealistic perception of life.”

Intrigued by whether this sensibility also represents for Larraín a deliberate break with Aristotelian notions of drama, or simply his deeply held belief about human nature, I ask him to speculate. “It’s hard for me to answer that question because I have to talk about what is close to me,” he says. “It reflects something that you think you understand. It is something that is part of your soul, and it is hard to analyze it. It is this whole cultural process that becomes the movie. And, it is in the soul of my country.”