Wednesday 13 February 2013

(Pablo Larrain, 2012)

So many things are great about Pablo Larrain's No, it's hard to know exactly where to begin.
Let's start with Larrain himself. It's always gratifying to see a director who has shown immense talent and potential in his work suddenly go up a gear. And with No, Larrain does just that. While the first two installments of his Pinochet trilogy, Tony Manero and Post Mortem, are both queasy, bleakly beautiful arthouse dramas which demonstrate their directors level of control, magnificent eye and well-developed sensibility, No is something entirely different. Here Larrain embraces populism, with an audience-friendly narrative, engaging lead and an (ambiguously) happy ending.
Of course, history dictated what that ending would be, and it may have also dictated (to some extent) what style Larrain would use in filming this story. But the degree to which the director embraces that style is transformative. Larrain opted to shoot No on Sony U-Matic videotape, the format favoured by Chilean television news in the 1980s. This means that the film effortlessly evokes the period - an effect only increased by the hairstyles and fashions on show - and also allows Larrain to incorporate lots of library footage of Pinochet, rioting and the actual "Yes" and "No" campaign tv spots.
It's an ugly format and yet Larrain embraces it wholeheartedly, finding the beauty in its simple, coarse blocks of colour and inability to process bright light without blowing through the image. He repeatedly has his characters disappear in washes of hard sunlight or bathed in strobing glow between trees as they walk.
Where his last two films are both oblique looks at the Pinochet era, each focusing on a disturbed, lone male who exemplifies some of what troubled Chile during those years, No is a more direct address to history. It is far less obscure, perhaps because Larrain had no role in the writing of the screenplay; it details the efforts of the "No" campaign in the 1988 plebiscite in Chile to wrest power from the dictator Pinochet. Each side was given a 15 minute slot every day for a month on late-night tv to make their pitch. The focus is on Rene Saavedra, a recently-returned exile (Gael Garcia Bernal) and successful advertising executive who is approached by the "No" campaign to work as a consultant. Despite being himself an exile due to his father's political beliefs (explaining Bernal's Mexican accent) Saavedra is apolitical; indeed we see him use the context of the political situation to his advantage pitching an ad campaign to some corporate types early in the film. That same pitch is repeated when he finally comes to show the No coalition his plan for their campaign, in a slightly on-the-nose moment - Larrain's film is as much about modern Chile as it is about Chile under Pinochet. The moment he is dramatising is the moment when everything was commodified and politics became marketing, and though his film has a happy ending, it is drenched in bitter irony. The end may justify the means, but the end of the film was not the end of Chile. The final scene gives a clue to the future of the country - we see Bernal pitching a campaign, yet again using the same empty political phrases, side-by-side with his boss Guzman (Alfredo Castro, so superb in Larrain's earlier films) who masterminded the "Yes" campaign. This pitch is for a soap opera, pure escapism, based around glamour and sophistication, suggesting the superficial capitalist society Chile would become.
This story allows for many tones and moods, and by turns this is a political drama, a dark comedy, a relationship drama and a conspiracy thriller. Aided by that powerful central aesthetic and a vivid sense of place, Larrain makes it all work. Just as in his other films, here he adeptly plays off the personal and the political. Saavedra is separated from his wife, who returns sporadically to see their son and spit accusations at her ex (when we first see her she is being beaten by the police). She is a genuine street revolutionary who sees no value in what he is doing, and his powerless pain whenever she is around is nicely played by Bernal, who is as sensitive and charismatic as ever here. Despite his character being an advertising hotshot - there are definite echoes of Mad Men in many scenes - Saavedra is also something of an everyman. He is terrified once the "Yes" side and the forces of Government turn their gaze upon him, and his house is broken into at night, his son threatened. He is even more terrified to be caught up in a riot later. Through him, still something of an outsider in Pinochet's Chile, we see this world in all its compromise, horror and denial, and we see vividly why it needed to change.
Well-acted by a terrific cast and with a script which manages to be both incisive and wide-ranging, and benefitting from some exceptional direction from Larrain, No is brilliant.

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