Review originally published on October 12, 2012 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2012 New York Film Festival.
One of the great pleasures of regular moviegoing is watching young filmmakers gather steam, and strength, with each project. “No” is the fourth film by young Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín, and it’s the third of his films to be set in the era of dictator Augusto Pinochet. It’s also his most assured picture, a confident step forward that’s both energizing and entertaining.
Larraín was born in 1976, in the early years of Pinochet, and he has freely admitted that his upbringing was relatively comfortable. (His parents are both politicians -- he has referred to his father, Hernán Larraín, as a senator from “the right.”) So if Larraín isn’t working from personal experience, he may be doing something even better: Drawing on a national and cultural imagination, and a set of shared experiences, to give outsiders a sense of what it was like to live through that troubled era.
“No” takes place in 1988, just as a national referendum was being put before citizens. They had two choices: Voting “yes” on the referendum would keep Pinochet in power for another eight years, and it was widely assumed – and not just by Pinochet and his lackeys – that that’s exactly what would happen. The referendum, or plebiscite, was considered a formality – or, more specifically, most people believed it was rigged. A majority of “no” votes would keep Pinochet and the Junta in power only for another year until a new president and congress could be elected, but no one save the most idealistic citizens believed that could happen. Surprisingly, the “no”s took 55% of the vote, and Larraín’s movie tracks the strategy devised by a young advertising hotshot, Rene Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), to help turn the allegedly done deal around.
Pinochet’s supporters and the opposition were each given 15 minutes of advertising per day on national television. When Saavedra is asked to sign on as a consultant with the “No” campaign, he’s reluctant at first – he views one of the group’s early proposed ads, filled with footage of brutality, as being too hectoring. Instead, he crafts a campaign that attempts to sell “freedom” the way he’s previously sold soft drinks: With rainbows and smiles and people dancing in the streets. The unspoken message is, Who wouldn't want this life? But the idea isn’t that Saavedra is selling a fallacy or a fairytale – it’s simply that for the first time in many years, people have finally been given hope that things might change, and the vitality of that idea is exhilarating.
“No” is anything but a somber political tract; it’s a little bit of a thriller, and more than a little bit of a comedy. It turns out that Saavedra’s boss at the ad agency where he works, Lucho Guzmán (played by Larraín regular Alfredo Castro, who starred in the director’s previous two Pinochet-era movies, “Tony Manero” and “Post Mortem”), is tapped to amp up the “Yes” campaign, after Pinochet’s supporters see that the “No” group is gaining ground. Saavedra’s relatively comfortable life is threatened – there are points at which he and his young son appear to be in serious danger -- but watching him stand up to the conservative, bullying Lucho is galvanizing. Bernal’s performance is subdued and, ultimately, lovely. This is a man who doesn’t seem to know what he really believes in until he starts trying to sell it to other people: When the revelation hits, the whole movie seems to blossom around him.
Larraín shot “No” on U-matic videotape to give it an intentionally grainy late-’80s feel; visually, the movie is simultaneously ugly and wholly alive. And unlike Larraín’s last picture, the far more downbeat “Post Mortem,” it actually feels like a movie made by a relatively young man. It’s confident but also youthful and vital. Larraín has said he never really intended to make a Pinochet trilogy, but even if that’s the case, he’s wrapped up this trio in the best possible way: With a “No” that’s an undeniable yes.