Televising the revolution, Pablo Larrain’s No puts advertising and happiness at the heart of Chile’s campaign to depose Pinochet.
Wages Of Fear by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Advertising is perhaps a strange entry point into the 1988 overthrow of the Chilean president General Pinochet, and yet after John Travolta lookalike serial killers in Tony Manero and cabaret dancer searching morgue clerks in Post Mortem, No is Pablo Larrain’s most direct commentary on the General’s regime. Charting the electoral campaign of the no vote, following calls from the USA for a validatory plebiscite by the people, Pablo Larraín’s No is a clever and fascinating account of the public relations machine behind this democratic revolution. Moving from a turnout of 24% at the ballot box to a ground swell toppling the “grand moderniser” with 54% of the vote, No tells Chile’s story and its bruised refound faith in democracy. And even with Mexican actor (and co-producer) Gael Garcia Bernal as the publicity wunderkind at its centre, No has to be Chile’s most important film in years.
Others have traced the disappearances, brutality and silent terror of Pinochet’s regime, most recently Patricio Guzmán’s sublime documentary Nostalgia For The Light as well as the other two films in Larraín’s dictatorship trilogy. But it’s only in No that Pablo Larraín exposes the economy of fear, as opinion makers grapple for a military dictatorship toppling majority. The stakes are high. And it speaks volumes that the bruised and fearful electorate is too traumatised to respond to a campaign of accusation exposing the horrors of Pinochet’s regime with its disappeared political prisoners and police brutality. And it’s not without a certain amount of controversy and fractious infighting that the allied factions behind the No campaign eventually come up with a mandate based on alegria, or happiness, of all things.
Based on a true story, René Saavedra, played by Garcia Bernal, is the hedonistic dream-peddler seduced into the No campaign’s ranks. He’s a leading light of Santiago’s advertising industry, but an everyman – a cynical pusher of consumer goods anxious to succeed in a broken country. And with all the latest mod cons – TV, skateboard, toy train set and hand exerciser. Nothing could capture the spirit of the ’80s with more beautiful precision than the advent of the microwave and its broken dreams of radiated cheese on toast. René is a single father, separated from his radical activist ex-wife, but an ample provider, with a lot to lose.
Chile’s dictatorship is capitalism at its most insidious, and René’s agency is staunchly supportive of Pinochet and his generals. His boss, and government adviser Lucho Guzman, played with macchiavellian gusto by Larraín familiar Alberto Castro, offers René promotion and a share in the advertising agency in order to dissipate Saavedra’s talents from the No campaign. And it’s hardly a level playing field. With only fifteen minutes of air time a night, the No campaign has its work cut out to change Chile’s hearts and minds, while the Yes campaigners are allowed to review the opposition’s tapes and respond – denigrate and deny. But as the campaign ramps up, what was first considered by the ruling élite to be a simple exercise in self-validation turns into an ill-prepared battle for survival, with the secret police terrorising the dissident campaigners, Saavedra’s house daubed with “Homeland peddling marxist” graffiti and requisitioning their broadcast tapes.
What is perhaps so surprising about No is its evolution from skateboarding apolitical bystander (launching Free! cola in a conservative marketing campaign of youthful rebellion but with respect) to revolutionary activist culminating in an enormous anti-government demonstration and the fall of the generals and their tacky, shoulder-padded wives. Garcia Bernal’s performance in the final reels is a masterclass in understatement, the slow realisation dawning that a change has come, filtered through a disbelieving smile. It’s democracy at its most powerful, and despite the manipulations of the PR message churning machine. Indeed, the Saavedra sponsored jingle “Chile, la alegria ya viene” becomes the slogan of the revolution.
With its grainy ’80s look of jerky camera zooms and CMYK colour bleed, No‘s television aesthetic allows Larraín to intersperse the filmed drama with real footage seamlessly, giving documentary weight to this slain Goliath story. Along with the international support of renowned lefties like Jane Fonda, Christopher Reeve and Richard Dreyfuss, original Chilean activists also take part, Pinochet’s successor Patricio Aylwin and silver-haired newsreader Patricio Bañados both suddenly shed thirty years when Larraín cuts to archive footage of their former selves in front of the camera.
Armed with the weight of history in his slingshot, No documents the triumph of democracy through simple consumerist and human desires for a better life and dreams of future happiness. Like the No campaign itself, Larraín doesn’t dwell on the Pinochet regime’s misdeeds, aiming instead at unifying all ages and all political allegiances under one rainbow banner of happiness and humour. Yet neither does it market a manipulated view of history. And it’s No‘s sheer authenticity and almost scurrilous lack of worthiness that makes Larraín’s film all the more violently moving. The revolution has finally been televised.
No is released on 8th February 2013 in the UK