Film Review: NoChilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín’s last in a trilogy of films about his country’s political landscape, <i>No </i>is the story of the 1988 national referendum which unseated a dictator.
No is the third of Pablo Larraín’s narrative films about Pinochet-era Chile, a series that might be called “The No Redemption Trilogy” for the bitter irony which underlies each of its stories. In the first, Tony Manero (2008), set in the darkest days of the dictator’s 15-year reign, Alfredo Castro plays a psychopath who hopes to become Chile’s best John Travolta impersonator. The second, Post Mortem (2010), follows characters employed at a morgue during the 1973 coup d’etat that killed President Salvador Allende and, later, placed Pinochet in power. Its protagonist, Mario, also played by Castro, is obsessive and delusional; in the end, he murders his neighbors, knowing that their deaths, like those of hundreds of others in the days following the coup, will never be investigated. No is about the campaign that promised Chileans freedom and affluence, and Pinochet’s peaceful political demise.
In Tony Manero and Post Mortem, the mental and moral breakdowns of the main characters are a microcosm of the deterioration of probity under Pinochet. In No, Larraín illustrates the practiced emotional detachment of Chile’s survivors—those who went into exile after the coup, or who stayed and were allied with Pinochet, or escaped notice because they were apolitical. It is 1988, and René (Gael García Bernal), Larraín’s ad-man protagonist, is emblematic of the younger generation of survivors who grew up in exile. He lacks any nationalistic sentiments, and harbors no political attachments. A composite of two men who in real life designed the “No” campaign for the national referendum that year—“Yes” was to keep Pinochet in office—René convinces Chileans that voting “no” will lead to a newfound contentment. His boss, Lucho (Castro), who owns the advertising firm and is old enough to be his father, remained in Chile. He is an advisor to a Pinochet government minister.
Since 1990, shortly after Pinochet relinquished his presidency, Chile has been a left-leaning democracy with a capitalist underpinning. The economic system is a Pinochet legacy. With the support of the U.S. who viewed Allende as a Cold War threat, the despot quickly reversed the nationalization of resources and industry that had taken place under Allende’s Socialist government. By 1988, Chile had private enterprise. René and his ilk in No, who are pushing a Coca-Cola-like product at the beginning of the film, are as much a product of the Pinochet regime as their predecessors in the trilogy. The celebrated ad man agrees to work for the coalition of leftist parties that oppose Pinochet because it presents an advertising challenge, one that becomes even more attractive when Lucho heads the “Yes” campaign.
The “No” campaign hinges on getting Chilean voters to take the referendum seriously; like René’s estranged wife Veronica (Antonia Zegers from Post Mortem), a committed activist, most think the referendum is fixed in Pinochet’s favor. Each side gets 15 minutes of TV time in the evening to sell their vision of Chile. Many of those segments, by turns thoughtful and disturbingly trite, are seen in their original form. With a wonderful cast and an excellent script by Pedro Peirano (The Maid), No is clever, entertaining and cynical, in the manner of a Preston Sturges satire. René, who approaches a coalition candidate in the same way he does the toy rockets and microwave ovens he peddles, convinces his Socialist clients to accept a silly jingle that fits the “social context.” Actually, it is René who best represents the social context, the fruition of Chile’s capitalism, which rather than ensuring freedom, protects the “free” market.
Larraín and cinematographer Sergio Armstrong used 1980s-era film cameras to shoot No, giving it an unmistakable period texture. Thirty percent of the movie is drawn from archival footage, yet the mix of film stocks and broadcast tapes is remarkably consistent. While the light and low-resolution color fix us in time, the dance music of the score, mostly waltz rhythms, suggests movement and timelessness. That music also ties No to the previous movies in the trilogy, both of which feature characters who dance. One of Mario’s victims in Post Mortem, the object of his amorous obsession, is a pretty dancer played by Zegers. In Tony Manero, Raúl dances for a ticket to freedom but is overshadowed by a younger man. Larraín’s dance leitmotif is not lighthearted—in each case, it represents a danse macabre, a waltz to doom.
No marks the beginning of the end for Pinochet, yet the score signals the ascendance in 1988 of a different, nascent threat, that of oligarchy. Unlike the disco sounds of Tony Manero and the can-can at the start of Post Mortem, the waltz is a circular dance. Just ten years after the plebiscite, a senator named Sebastían Piñera opposed Pinochet’s arrest for war crimes. Piñera was elected president in 2010, a little more than a decade later. At the beginning of No, and at the end, there are long tracking shots of René on a skateboard, sometimes with no Foley, only waltz music. In another movie, he would have been radicalized by his experiences, the child-like skateboard reflective of rebirth, of the carefree independence he helped to forge. Here, René is merely circling back around to what he was doing before the referendum. And Chile, Larraín suggests, is doing the same.