April 21, 2013

MOVIES: No (Pablo Larrain, 2012/US 2013)

The Chilean film No was one of this year's Oscar nominees for Best Foreign-Language Film. It's a movie about an advertising campaign, and if that has you envisioning a sort of South American Mad Men, lord, are you in for a world of disappointment.

In 1988, under domestic and international pressure, dictator/president Augusto Pinochet agreed to a national election on whether he should continue in office for another eight years; it was to be a simple yes/no vote, and No tells the story of the campaign for the "no" side.

Each side was given 15 minutes of uninterrupted TV time each day to present its case, and the multiple anti-Pinochet political parties turned to TV ad writer Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal) to help create their campaign. The politicians wanted to do a dry, scary recitation of the facts -- this many people executed, this many people "disappeared," this many people exiled -- thinking that this would be the only chance they'd ever had to present that case on national television.

Saavedra argued that facts, especially depressing ones, wouldn't "sell" and that the campaign was sure to lose with that approach. Instead, he proposed a peppy, optimistic campaign built around a sappy jingle ("Chile, happiness is coming"), imagery of picnics and rainbows and happy children, and bad Laugh-In sketches.

That conflict, and that clash of styles, would have made a really interesting movie, but it's dismissed in about ten minutes so that we can watch lots of the ads and be fed a tepid thriller plot about whether Saavedra's family is in danger as a result of his work. Also pushed to the background is the tension between Saavedra and his liberal friends, many of whom believe that the election is rigged, and that by taking part, Saavedra is only lending legitimacy to an inherently corrupt process.

Chile voted to get rid of Pinochet (it's really not a spoiler if it's a 25-year-old historical event, right?), but -- and here is one of the movie's major flaws -- we're not told anything that convinces us that this campaign is at all responsible for Chile's vote to oust Pinochet. This lack of information, to be sure, is not the fault of the filmmakers -- I would imagine that a regime as repressive as that of Pinochet was not a hospitable place for pre-election polling -- but it does leave us feeling that we've watched a lot of sound and fury without knowing what, if anything, it accomplished.

The look of the movie is interesting; it's shot using cameras and film stock from the 80s, so the period footage, including ads from the "no" campaign, blends seamlessly with the new footage. But that is the most interesting thing about the movie, which ignores its most promising ideas in favor of letting us hear the "Chile, happiness is coming" jingle about 18,000 times.

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