Thursday, February 21, 2013

Chile, 1988: Under the fifteen-year rule of dictator Augusto Pinochet the political climate is harsh and often dangerous.  Due to immense international pressure a public vote is set up as to whether he will continue his reign over the country.  The decision was set on a simple vote, either YES or NO.  YES would keep the status quo in a country under siege by corruption, censorship and grand inequality and NO would lead to the founding of a newly instated democracy for the country for Chile.  For this measure, each camp is allotted fifteen minutes of television airtime every night in the twenty-seven days leading up to the landmark election in an effort to present their case before the public vote.   Director Pablo Larraín chronicles these tenuous days leading up the election with the rousing and electric No, currently an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign-Language Film, and the third part of trilogy of films the director has made about the Pinochet regime, following Tony Manero (2008) and Post Mortem (2010), Larraín has crafted a crisply sharp movie of unmatchable intelligence and enterprise, a moving and delicate piece, driven by a grace and immediacy of an important chapter in a nations history.

To the credit of the filmmakers and the entire team apart of this extraordinary feature, No never plays like a hard pill to swallow piece of filmmaking that goes down like medicine.  Instead, it's a funny, often darkly subversive, nifty bit of historical fiction, shot with a fly on the wall perspective of a living reality.  The first sequence is a telling one.  Young ace advertiser, René Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), whose sort of a shaggier version of Don Draper from Mad Men, is pitching his latest product.  It's the latest campaign for a soda, and the nervy execution of his angle is so acutely informed by the nature of good salesmanship that at first, we the audience seem unaware of what this is all about at all-- he turns his pitch into the selling of something greater than sugary fizz.  René is soon interrupted by José Tomás Urrutia (Luis Gnecco), an old acquaintance and prime proponent for the NO; José wants him to shepherd the television spots in an effort to bring his ace adman skills to the movement.  Whatever internal moral conflicts that rest inside René, who we later learn was once an expatriate of Chile from a left-wring upbringing, he is hesitant to join forces with the NO camp because he, like many Chilean youths, believe the whole system is rigged anyway.  Through arm-twisting and a particular set of violence set upon his estranged activist wife Veronica (Antonia Zegers), René finally relents.  To thicken the narrative push of the story thematically, René's boss Lucha Guzman (Alfredo Castro), whose vehemently on the YES camp is heading their advertising campaign.

The internal bits of No, at least in the nervy first half, take some time getting used to, as a great many characters (many of whom based upon real people, some like René composite studies) enter the fray, and the relationships tend to blur a few times in a confusing way.  Adding to this is the unusual way in which Larraín films No, nearly as a nervy post modern documentary.  Shot on the video, using the U-matic 3:4 aspect ratio, which was commonly used on television in Chile in the late 1980s, No seamlessly blends archival footage, recreations and new footage in an all together alert and mesmerizing way, coming that which is almost akin to cinema verité.  What's striking, almost immediately is not just how fresh the film looks by reverting back to the crappy visual aesthetic of the past, but how relevant and how sharply deft the screenplay is.  No was written by Pedro Peirano based on un-produced play by Antonio Skarmeta.  Even as we are figuring and sorting everything out and putting a frame of reference on the characters and the events (most of which were absolutely foreign to myself), there's a grounding sense of control and an ease from the filmmakers that gently coincides as the film builds up in tension.

René has a radical strategy in transforming the NO campaign.  Rather than illustrating and utilizing their fifteen minutes of air time on the oppressive and sad truths of the last fifteen years, how about emphasizing the optimism and wonder of what the future could look like if one votes NO.  And so he sets about filming grandly happy scenic footage of happy, smiley individuals, picnicking in the park, dancing, singing and laughing.  He even gets a catchy jingle written for the spots-- something jumpy as opposed to the histrionics something like a ballad or an anthem might convey.  It goes without saying there's great reticence when he reveals his first previews, as many members of the NO campaign struggle with such saccharine treatment given the hardships that this election was brought upon.  However, and this is the insightful and resonant thing about No-- René understands inherently that it's not so much about the facts or the right or the wrong when pushing an agenda or a cause, it's in how it's sold.  In a reaching theme not so dissimilar than a central conflict in the Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, sometimes in how a position is sold can make all the difference.  And just as Lincoln sold the 13th Amendment as a necessary response to the brutality of the Civil War, the NO camp sells the concept of happiness as the anecdote to the disenfranchised.  And as in politics and advertising, the lines between right and wrong, morality and immorality between queasily blurry, no matter if one believes they have right on their side.  The conflict of conscience begins to take hold of René, and Bernal in a great performance of effortless control and subtle vulnerability makes that achingly clear as his own private world is put in jeopardy as his name becomes more and more closely associated to the NO campaign.

No, in it's efforts doesn't sugarcoat the events of history in the slightest, even as it sheds light on a significant slice of international history with a grandiosity and scope of great entertainment.  For there's the odious beast of political games that rear its ugly head in the form of violence and dirty tricks.  The film works nearly as well as a social satire as it does a humanistic drama.  Further competitiveness is tested between René and Lucho, as Lucho's tactics grow uglier and bring out graver consequences for the safety of the entire team, all of whom slowly becoming closer targets to further hostility.  The film may be considered a largely one-sided affair, and the film has received a few negative comments from various members claiming neglect to other sides of the story-- all of which can be seen as true and natural for a film showing one glimpse of huge event-- however Casto provides an excellent and superbly complicated performance, one that's unnerving in its maliciousness and surprising in its warmth.  Like everything else in No, it all equates to something different, something special and a stirring testament to power and scope that filmmakers should always hope to achieve.  A

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...