Over the course of MIFF '12, I managed to catch two Chilean films. Both films concerned themselves with matters of national importance (a national hero and a momentous decision, respectively), but could not have been further apart in terms of tone and method of delivery.
Violeta Went to Heaven was a passionate, emotional, and endlessly sombre film littered with alienating moments of magic realism. Frankly (and disappointingly), I wasn't nearly as affected by it as I'd liked to have been. NO on the other hand, is emotive without being heavy-handed, is stylistically and aesthetically bold without being alienating or pretentious. Surprisingly moving and littered with solid performances, NO has managed to be a personal highlight over the fortnight or so of films on offer at MIFF ‘12. Woah!
Without descending into a history lesson, Pablo Larraín’s NO concerns itself with the referendum held in 1988, after fifteen-odd years of Augusto Pinochet getting his dictatorship on and seriously cramping the style of just about all of Chile. The referendum (which I believe must have been a result of international pressure) asked Chileans to vote YES or NO to General Pinochet ruling for another eight years. Each side would receive a certain amount of TV airtime in order to convince the average Chileno to hand over their vote.
In charge of the NO campaign is René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), a young advertising hotshot. In a risky move that angers those who would fill the allocated fifteen minutes with pictures of death and destruction, René chooses instead to simply use the strategy he favoured to sell soft drink and microwaves. The message of the NO campaign becomes one of positivity, looking to a brighter future for Chile sans Pinochet - full of young people on the beach, dancing and rainbows. Of course, there’s always going to be more factors involved in a dictatorship being overthrown than an effective campaign, but NO does compellingly detail the way a positive message, a catchy jingle and good advertising strategy can play a monumental role. “CHILE! HAPPINESS IS COMING!” the videos declare, in a tune that takes up residency in your head long after the film’s ended. Let's hear it for advertising! Yeah, Don Draper!
NO was shot on era-appropriate U-matic video camera, which gives the film an authentic feel, and which also means the actual ads, campaign spots and news bulletins seamlessly interwoven with the film. The use of said actual footage makes for often wryly funny, and at times moving, viewing. The YES campaign ends up taking some "they actually did that?" directions, in which it becomes clear sometimes history really is more bizarro than fiction. And that TV in the 80s was fucking weird. In turn, footage of actual riots in Chile’s streets makes for some emotional scenes. It’s a bold, effective decision to interweave the footage, one that ultimately pays off - even if NO ends up looking murky and weirdly square (4:3? In 2012?).
Gael García Bernal gives a fine, understated performance is the maverick ad man at the film’s centre. However, given the amount of time given NO to the workings of the campaign, the relationships and subplots at the human core of the film aren’t given enough attention. As a result, many of the characters within NO remain underdeveloped, including René’s estranged wife, Veronica. If I’m going to have another small gripe, it’d be that the film was slightly too long, and that without some prior knowledge of Chile’s history, one might feel slightly lost at times. However, neither of those things were enough to detract from the film as a whole in a majorly irritating way.
Pablo Larraín’s film about a pivotal moment within the long and skinny South American country's history is a fascinating one. NO is an arresting snapshot of a time and a place not often visited, and is a compelling look at where and to what extent advertising and social upheaval can intersect. It's also moving, surprisingly funny, and despite its occasional slow moments, ultimately rewarding.