Saturday, March 16, 2013

NO             B-            
Chile  France  USA  (116 mi)  2011  d:  Pablo Larraín

This is another heavily awarded film that seems a curious choice at best, the only Chilean film to have been nominated for an Academy Award in the Foreign Film category, also winning the Art Cinema top prize in the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes where it received a “rousing standing ovation” when it screened.  While few South American films receive this kind of recognition, the award may be more for the director’s dogged persistence in completing his Trilogy using a background of Chilean General Augusto Pinochet’s 15-year military dictatorship, also including TONY MANERO (2008), an extremely provocative take on the Fascist mindset of the era, turning a disco dancer into a psychopathic serial killer with an ever accumulating body count, where the military presence looms ominously in the background, and POST MORTEM (2010), where a similar sociopathic character (played by the same actor Alfredo Castro) is a mortuary assistant who remains obsessed with a nightclub dancer even as the bodies pile up, remaining blind to the accumulating horrors of Pinochet's military regime.  Both films were shot in a grainy 16 mm blown up to 35 mm, where the director obviously feels comfortable with this grungy aesthetic, choosing a primitive U.S.-bought, 1983 U-matic video camera in the final installment that helps the film achieve the gritty authenticity of archival news footage from the era.  While some may accept the pale, washed out colors and the persistent blurriness throughout, resembling standard television shows from the 50’s or 60’s as opposed to the late 80’s, this easily qualifies as one of the ugliest looking films seen in decades.  While it was obviously the director’s choice, one would think it would only look worse on a small television screen, as it only seems to alienate or further isolate the viewer from the subject matter, especially since so little archival footage is actually used other than television broadcasts.  But what footage there is does blend seamlessly into the rest of the movie, but it begs the question, is that really necessary?  Do we not already understand the ugliness of the situation?  What’s different about NO from the other two films is rather than delve into the Fascist mindset, this one shows a Chilean population finally doing something about it, expressed in often darkly satiric images that show a fundamental understanding of how creatively developed media advertising, through originality alone, can overcome the apparent political stranglehold in government controlled mass media.       

While the film provides no background information whatsoever, Pinochet was installed in a U.S. backed military coup d’état in 1973 when democratically elected Socialist President Salvador Allende allegedly took his own life while under siege, surrounded by an armed opposition.  Pinochet’s Fascist military dictatorship ended democratic rule and targeted all political opponents, where thousands of leftists were killed, 30,000 tortured, and 80,000 arrested indefinitely, often disappearing without a trace, most all of which happened immediately after assuming power in 1973.  Nearly a quarter of a million left the country in exile, claiming political persecution from a Fascist police state that allowed no political dissent, and more followed when the nation’s economy continued to fail throughout the decade, where Pinochet was believed to have embezzled as much as $28 million dollars.  Nonetheless, at the behest of the U.S. that installed him, Pinochet agreed to abide by the outcome of a Constitutional referendum, the 1988 plebiscite, which would democratically legitimize his power.  In the month before the vote, the government controlled television airwaves allowed each side 15 minutes daily to make their case for or against Pinochet, scheduled late at night to suppress the viewership.  The film is a fictionalized adaptation by Pedro Peirano from an Antonio Skármeta play Referendum (both of whom appear as Pinochet supporters), where Gael García Bernal plays René Saavedra, a young hotshot advertising executive whose father was an infamous political exile.  His ultra conservative boss is Alfredo Castro, the star of the earlier Trilogy films, playing Lucho Guzmán, who’s none too pleased when he gets word that René has been approached by Urrutia (Luis Gnecco), a vanguard Socialist representing a heavily factionalized group of 16 opposition parties to design an advertising campaign against Pinochet, where they play upon the actual word “no,” suggesting no more, no violence, no repression, no dictatorship, no disappearances, etc.  But as many voices as there are in this coalition, there are as many disagreements, especially when René decides to take a positive and upbeat approach, distinguishing themselves from the repressed Pinochet conformity, marketing new and original ideas as the nation’s hope for the future.  What the leftists see, however, is a strategy to sell democracy much as they would any other capitalist product, making pleasing Pepsi generation commercials endorsing the No vote, where “Happiness is coming if you vote No,” instead of the more informative leftist political rhetoric, often leading to dismissive outrage, Escena de: "No" - Película de Pablo Larraín YouTube (5:11).
What the film does especially well is establish a shadowy, noirish atmosphere of lurking menace, where René’s car and property are vandalized while police vehicles remain parked outside, or he receives threatening phone calls that harm may come to his young son, and his boss makes still more threats about what could happen to him, so it’s a bit ironic that while others insist upon gloomy reminders of the horrors of living under a military dictatorship in their approach, René sticks to the positive, targeting youth culture with rainbow images of happiness and joy, young people dancing in the streets and singing a familiar “We Are the World” style theme song Michael Jackson - WE ARE THE WORLD - HD STEREO ... - YouTube (7:05) turning into something like this, Exclusive clip from Pablo Larraín's new film No, starring Gael García Bernal YouTube (1:53).  Within this murky existence, the film fails to address the sins of the Pinochet regime other than by insinuation, where facts and archival footage are surprisingly absent.  When Guzmán is assigned by the Fascists to head the Yes campaign, where in the Pinochet military vernacular they’re running against “faggots and commies,” pitting a subordinate against his boss, he threatens to use strong-armed tactics that are never employed.  For instance, what’s stopping a boss from demanding excessive work hours from René so he has no time left to spend on the campaign, or, as Guzmán has armed militants at his disposal, a police state from destroying the No television studio and all their equipment, making it impossible to produce nightly segments?  Hell, this kind of stuff was shown in Sam Fuller’s PARK ROW (1952) during rival newspaper wars, one side’s dirty tactics pitted against the other, until one is bombed out of business.  Instead, the audience continually sees short 30 to 60 second TV spots, without a clue how they’re filling 15 minutes every night, or how well their spots are doing with the public.  It’s likely there were other forces at work besides the TV campaign, but they’re not a part of this film, suggesting it was the work of this group alone that finally toppled a dictatorship, winning 56% of the vote, where 97% of the electorate voted, eventually leading to democratic elections for the Presidency and Parliament.  Television is a powerful medium, combined with the savvy political effectiveness of well calculated advertising, like candidate Obama’s very effective 2008 slogans promising “Change we can believe in,” or “Yes we can,” where this victory in Chile after 15 years of living under the thumb of a police state must have felt like the elation of electing the first black President in the United States.  There’s very little build up, however, or a rush of excitement, as the workers were led to believe they had little chance, where Gael García Bernal’s acting performance is emotionally subdued throughout, rarely showing any emotion except his outbursts against downbeat leftist rhetoric.  Even when victory is declared, he can’t even crack a smile, still living under the constant fear of reprisals.

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