One No, Many Yeses?

No is a film which looks at advertising through the prism of politics and propaganda, says DW Mault…

Joy is an integral part of the cinematic experience, but because of the nature of joy, its sense of fleeting transience – as with its comrade Happiness – we all try to obtain it knowing it will end, flee and escape our clutches. So, when an opportunity comes around to invite Joy into our lives and share the excitement, we must shout YES!

No is the latest film from the Chilean director Pablo Larraín, and it concludes his loose trilogy of films that look, from oblique angles, at life in Chile from 1973 to the late 80s; all the while being overshadowed by General Augusto Pinochet, and everything that that entails for the denizens of Chile.

Larraín, born in 1976 three years after a US-sponsored coup d’etat, saw the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende cast out, murdered and disappeared; he is the son of a wealthy rightist businessman and former senator. This allowed him to escape the realities of Pinochet’s regime – he has said that making films is a way of trying to understand what he came to recognize as a national trauma, which sounds oh so very trite, but (and there always must be a but) his Pinochet trilogy is possibly the first treble since Krzysztof Kieślowski’s masterful Three Colours trilogy, that attempts to show us the horrors of life in a society that is choking on its own death rattle.

“No resembles nothing more than a cosmic joke not seen”

Tony Manero (2008), set in 1978 in a rotten and squalid Santiago, is simultaneously the least forceful and least delicate of the three films. Pinochet is almost he who must not be named, but the eponymous anti-hero, who is obsessed with Saturday Night Fever, is a horrid doppelganger of the despot: His delusions sit side by side with his inhumanity. Post Mortem (2010) moves back to September 1973, the genesis waking hour of the Pinochet era and everything that that summons up, but gives a hidden visage on the coup, semi-escaping to peer on a dull would-be romance between two accidental witnesses to the aftershocks of historical mass murder. No swaps all this for something else. Now Larraín’s hero (a composite figure) is part of a history that cares not a jot for the ideas of right but looks and laughs; for No resembles nothing more than a cosmic joke not seen, Zeus over-did it one too many times: in vino veritas indeed!

No is the antithesis of the half baked reactionary Les Misérables; for here is a revolution via stealth that will make you beam and smile and want to say: “This day shall gentle our condition: And gentlemen now a-bed, Shall think themselves accursed they were not there, And hold their manhoods cheap while any speaks That fought with us upon this day.”

For what we witness is not the idea but the fact that the tools of advertising (those people Bill Hicks told to go home and kill yourself) toppled what no one could: Pinochet. Larraín shows us a centre-left coalition that packaged resistance into commercials featuring jingles, a rainbow graphic and wide smiles, the nightmare legacy of the coup d’état vanquished by a brilliant coup de théâtre.

In October 1988, the Chilean constitution required a national referendum to determine whether Pinochet would remain in power another eight years. Voters who supported the regime voted yes; those who didn’t voted no. The no’s captured 55 percent of the vote, and Pinochet was ousted, although he remained president until free elections were held the next year (succeeded by Patricio Aylwin Azócar) and commander of the armed forces until 1998.

The film takes you inside the No campaign, shows the world of advertising being used for a common good, how the campaign was brought together and produced. Gael García Bernal  plays Rene Saavedra, a skateboard-riding advertising hotshot who signs onto the No campaign, to the displeasure of his conservative boss, Luis Guzman (Alfredo Castro, who starred in Pablo Larraín’s two previous films Tony Manero and Post Mortem).

“The film seems to be channelling something we can’t put our finger on”

The film at first glance seems to be channelling something we can’t put our finger on; it could be tone, it could be visual, but what is it? Well, the film is shot using out of date U-Matic equipment that was, in 1988, de rigueur; which means the film comes across like a mongrel mix of Latin American Soap Opera and late 80s reportage. This works when it shouldn’t, it makes the film ugly; but of course it has to be ugly to juxtapose the moments on the ground with the threat of danger round the corner, and Larraín never shies away from these moments of threat and death. Ultimately No is a film for anyone picked on, bullied or downtrodden.

If I was amazingly stupid I would say No is the Chilean Mad Men, but luckily I’m not stupid; it’s a film that knows its Freud and McLuhan, so it looks both forward and back to such cinematic essayists as Adam Curtis and Chris Marker. There is a bizarre doubling in No in which the two internalised sides battle for supremacy; between the banality of René’s ads and their cunning effectiveness. The leaders behind the No campaign see the broadcast opportunity as a voice for those with no voice, a way to show the masses what has been happening under their noses. But René, whose great idea is “happiness,” brings earworm jingles, a rainbow graphic, and stages bizarre moments of happy, dancing, picnicking families. Of course, the hard left (who he’s supposed to be working for) including his estranged wife (Antonia Zegers), tell him he’s suppressing the past and all that entails.

What we are left with means you can cry tears (of Joy, natch) or laugh like a loon, because they got rid of a dictator not with blood, but jingles! Questions – though always with the questions and that is what’s so wonderful about this film – and wonder and joy is what you’ll feel when you stroll out of the cinema post-No; but it’s those questions that linger…

Chile (in the 20th century) has been a laboratory rat for those instigators of neo-liberalism; whether they’ve been Milton Friedman’s boys from the Chicago School of Economics, testing out free-market capitalism gone crazy, to the unfortunate truth that the centre-left groups that ran Chile for 20 years post-Pinochet never made an inch of difference to one of the most unequal societies in the world…

The truth I leave you with is that endurance is earned through pain, and No is pure truth, 24fps, even when it’s a lie; because behind lies will always be a uniformed truth that is self-evident to those who want answers to dangerous questions. No is a film where the positive answer is a negative and the negative positive; a topsy-turvy world that actually happened and got rid of a monster; it’s a fairy story with no fairies or swords, unless you count Jonathan Aitken’s simple sword of truth.

DW Mault

No screens at FACT this evening as part of Picturehouses Discover Tuesday strand, and continues for a week

Posted on 12/02/2013 by thedoublenegative