In 1988, amidst rising pressure from the international community, dictator Augusto Pinochet takes the unprecedented step of putting his 15-year dictatorship up to a national plebiscite – a yes or no vote from the people as to whether his reign can extend another eight years. The “no” campaign, which is given only a paltry 15 minutes of state-sponsored television airtime to make a case for why Pinochet must go, turn to advertising guru Renè (Gabriel Garcia Bernal) to create a campaign powerful enough to change the world. This is the fertile ground from which Pablo Larraìn’s NO sprouts, capturing a game-changing moment in world history in stylistically unique fashion.
It’s something of a (pleasant) surprise to me that this film managed to garner a Best Foreign Film nomination at this year’s Oscars; While Larraìn proves a deft hand at balancing the paranoid thriller and fish-out of-water aspects of Renè’s attempts at overthrowing a dictatorship, he does shoot the entire film in Sony’s three-quarter inch U-Matic magnetic tape format which gives the entire movie the sheen of a late ’80s news broadcast (in fact, this format was used by Chilean news programs at the time this film is set) – a stylistic choice capable of sinking the entire enterprise under the guise of needless artifice. And at first, the decision to shoot the film entirely in this anachronistic video format does prove a bit distracting, but it pays some truly high dividends as the story progresses. It achieves a sort of era-specific verisimilitude that costume/set design and props couldn’t achieve alone, and also allows for the filmmaker to incorporate actual selections from the “no” campaign’s efforts alongside news footage of Pinochet’s rule seamlessly into the film’s narrative.
In the end, Larraìn’s gambit seems eerily similar to that of his protagonist – doubling down on stylistic excess as a means of enhancing instead of diluting the core message trying to be conveyed. And if the risk nets the sought-after reward the cumulative effect is something like a magic trick. NO is a delightful film, tremendously performed (Bernal’s strong performance is matched by Alfredo Castro as his boss/political adversary, Lucho Guzmàn) and creatively assembled. It showcases a sense of humor without ever losing sight of the injustices perpetrated under Pinochet’s reign and presents the viewer with food for thought without much in the way of editorializing. A straight line can be drawn from this watershed political moment where style worked in tandem with substance to overthrow a dictatorship to the Citizens United ruling of the Supreme Court just a couple years ago where style was given carte blanche to bludgeon substance as it sees fit. That NO encourages us to examine these issues whilst being thoroughly engaging and entertaining in its own right is just part of its brilliance.
Stars: Gael Garcia Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Luis Gnecco, Antonia Zegers
Directed by: Pablo Larraìn
Written by: Pedro Peirano, based on the play El Plebiscito by Antonio Skàrmeta
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Rating: R for language
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Date: March 29, 2013