No was not the fifth best film I saw in 2013. However, it was definitely one of the most enjoyable movie-watching experiences of the year. For a film about the horrors of the Pinochet dictatorship, No is decidedly light-hearted, comedically driven and slyly self-reflexive, whilst avoiding a parochial and juvenile account of life in 1980s Chile. No completes Pablo Larrain’s unintended trilogy about the Pinochet era; 2008’s Tony Manero focused on a middle-aged Chilean man’s obsession with the film Saturday Night Fever, while 2010’s Post Mortem is about a pathologist’s assistant dealing with the sum of dead bodies amassing during the 1973 military coup in Chile. Continuing this trend, No concentrates on the lives of ordinary individuals in this era, and the paths they take to rebel against Pinochet.
In 1988, after facing constant pressure from the international community, the Chilean government proposed a referendum, whereby the public was required to vote ‘Yes’ if they wanted another eight years of the Pinochet dictatorship, or ‘No’ if they wanted a democratic presidential election the next year. No is the story of Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal – the only lead actor to appear in two of my top ten films of the year). Rene is an advertising agent who has had success making frothy and superficial ads, and he hired as a marketing consultant for the ‘No’ campaign. He turns their advertisements from stark depictions of Pinochet’s terrible leadership into upbeat commercials that resemble soft-drink ads more than scare campaigns. Rene assures Chile that “happiness is coming”.
No is the love child of Argo and Mad Men, only with greater stylistic and formal experimentation. Evidently, there is a lot of inherent intrigue and power to the story itself, and as I did not know much about this era before going into the film, I was never certain as to whether Rene and his team would succeed or not. Unlike Argo, with its Western bias guaranteeing that the Americans will be rescued successfully, Larrain constantly heightens the stakes in No to the point where the film’s climax is never foreshadowed. Rene’s young family is stalked by the police and attacked, while, nihilistically, the characters often remark that the referendum will likely be rigged anyway. Anyone who watches No would surely know that Pinochet was, eventually, deposed, but I am sure that few would know the exact circumstances that lead to his eviction. No could just be about one of the many failed attempts to end his regime – attempts that were perennially quashed by the government during Pinochet’s fifteen year reign.
The film does pull some punches – there is very little violence in the film, sequences depicting protests against Pinochet being nullified by the authorities are too brief, and there are a few too many clichéd, anonymous phone-call threats. Larrain also has a tendency to fall back on clichéd characterisations (can someone please make a docu-drama where the protagonist’s characterisation extends more than the fact he is an introverted and detached family man?). But far from being a run-of-the-mill, sentimentalised docu-drama, Larrain’s film is a tongue-in-cheek comedy, distinguishing itself from the perception that all docu-dramas are dull, dour, stolid historical epics.
For me, one of the most intriguing trends in contemporary cinema is the notion of form mirroring content. In other words, several filmmakers, rather than using dialogue and character to express their themes, use particular stylistic, structural and formal techniques to communicate their messages. Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring decidedly does not delve into the psyches of its characters, as it is a superficial film about superficial people. The Bling Ring uses its repetitive, cyclic structure to allegorise the repetitive, cyclic and dangerous lives of its characters. Likewise, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is an exorbitantly excessive film about exorbitantly excessive people, using numbingly repetitive sequences of drug-fuelled orgies to show the numbing repetitiveness of such drug-fuelled orgies.
Similarly, in No, the film’s form complements the film’s content. Just as the advertisers focused on how “happiness is coming” to Chile, rather than the insidiousness of Pinochet’s government, the film often adopts a brisk pace and an optimistic tone when treating the serious issues at hand. As a satire of the trivialities of advertising, the film is hilarious throughout; from snappy dialogue, to anachronistic props (why are there baguettes in Rene’s ads?) to a very funny motif involving a mime that appears in both the anti-Pinochet and the cola ads Rene makes. This self-reflexivity makes No a distinctive cinematic experience.
Moreover, the film’s aesthetic composition is vital to No’s introspections. Much of the film was shot on a U-matic videocassette camera, giving the images a grainy soft focus and rainbow stripes around some of the objects and characters’ frames. That, combined with the film’s 1.33:1 aspect ratio, evokes the aesthetic of Chilean advertising at the time, allowing for seamless incorporation of archival footage into the film. The film is like the ads Rene makes, and Larrain never loses sight of this concept.
As for No’s historical veracity, I’m sure it is sketchy. But when you’re having this much fun, who cares? No does not have any pretences about accurately depicting the ignominious Pinochet era. It wants to be narratively entertaining and stylistically daring. And it most certainly is.