Being back in my hometown of Lima, Peru, I'm going to fall back and probably not be able to watch the latest U.S. releases such as 'Lincoln', 'Anna Karenina' and 'Silver Linings Playbook' maybe until early 2013. But while I may end up being late on some of those, I will try and report on whatever I'm able to see over here. Especially when it's a movie as good as the one I just saw.
Pablo Larrain's 'No' is Chile's official submission for the Oscar Foreign Language Film category. If I were a voter, I'd do as much as I can to make sure it makes the cut. As the third movie in Larrain's unofficial trilogy about dictatorship-era Chile, 'No' is set in 1988, the year president Augusto Pinochet succumbed to international pression to legitimize his government and called for a referendum to determine whether he would stay in power for eight more years.
The protagonist of this story is René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), a hot-shot young publicist who is approached to help craft the 'No' campaign against president Pinochet. Each campaign has been allowed 15 minutes of television airtime every night until the election. Daily airtime on national tv is already a win for the opposition, but to get Pinochet out of office, they must have a winning campaign. As an ad-man, René understands this and treats the campaign as he would any other. The 'No' campaign is a product he has to sell. Of course, as the movie goes along René gets more emotionally involved in the campaign and the ideas that stand behind it.
Played by Gael García Bernal in a terrific performance that manages to convey the character's inner struggle without words, René Saavedra turns out to be the key cog in the film's machinery. The movie is not as much about him as about the 'No' campaign as a whole, but it's through him that we get to understand the magnitude and the importance of the events portrayed in the film. As he is swayed from his analytical approach to the campaign into deep felt hope for a better Chile, the audience too is swayed into believing that two of the world's most cynical enterprises (Publicity and Politics) could not only work together to bring down a dictatorship, but do it by embracing positivity. After a U.S. election where the main focus of television campaigning has been badmouthing the other candidate, it's refreshing to look at a winning campaign that utilizes happiness, hope and humor.
A particularity that might set some people off is the film's visual style. It uses a lot of archival footage, but you'll have a hard time differentiating it from the new material, which is shot in a very ugly-looking manner, as an eighties videotape might look. Some viewers (and Oscar voters) might not embrace this look, but it's a fundamental part of the story. The lives of the people creating this television spots and the campaign itself are one and the same. When the only way to defeat a dictator is with an optimistic television spot, then the spot is as real as the crimes, the protests and the tortures.