Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Pablo Larraín
Screenwriter: Pedro Peirano, from Antonio Skarmeta’s play “Referendum”
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Luis Gnecco, Antonia Zegers, Marcial Tagle, Nestor Cantillana, Jaime Vadell
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 1/25/13
Opens: February 15, 2013
When I interviewed Salvador Allende in 1967 as part of a group operating under a Fulbright fellowship, I considered him to be the most charismatic guy I’d ever met. But then, somehow, people of radical political persuasions do seem bolder than most politicians with a more moderate bent. He arrived in a motorcycle, wearing a leather jacket, and could have passed for a young, hip dude despite his being president of the Chilean Senate at the time (elected to the presidency of Chile in 1970 by that country’s Congress due to a lack of a majority candidate). He alienated the legislature and judiciary by nationalizing industries and, of course, did not win the approval of the United States government which had long feared anyone with a socialist or communist label. Overthrown with the help of the American CIA in 1970 (Allende committed suicide when the military surrounded the La Moneda castle), his place was taken by a military man, Augusto Pinochet, who reverse all socialization, cracked down on labor unions, and privatized government-run industries. At the same though, to his credit, Pinochet stabilized the currency, and cut tariffs to further open Chile to global trade.
Pinochet then proceeded to alienate a great many of his constituents by treating opposition to vigorous methods such as arrest and torture and, in fact, like with the dictatorship in Argentina, hundreds, maybe thousands of Chileans disappeared. Ultimately even the United States, which helped put Pinochet in power, turned against him and, with the support of other western countries demanded a yes-no plebiscite, in effect, “Do you want to allow Pinochet to continue in power?” In a legitimate vote monitored by journalists in 1988, Pinochet was ousted, fifty-four percent of the population casting “no” votes, though he remained the commander of the military until his retirement in 1998. Before his death in 2006, he was accused of scores of charges of human rights violations.
The film “No” is not a doc, but a narrative drama with some humor but one which retains a highly political theme—family matters take a surprisingly subordinate position at least when compared to what an American company might have done with the material. The Chilean director, Pablo Larraín, appears obsessed by Pinochet, releasing “No” as the final episode in a trilogy, though the previous two films need not be watched to gain greater understanding of this one. For example, in Larraín’s “Post Mortem,” the director hones in on one Mario, who types autopsy reports in a morgue and who is obsessed with a cabaret dancer whose brother and father are arrested just after the 1973 coup. He becomes involved with searching for her. In the more humorous “Tony Manero” a man is obsessed with the John Travolta’s character in “Saturday Night Fever,” imitates the dance style, and deals with other dancers who are working in underground activities against the Pinochet dictatorship.
So what’s the story with Pinochet? The post-coup leader of Chile ruins a good part of his record as a currency reformer by authorizing years of arrests, torture, imprisonment and disappearances of those members of the opposition who demonstrate on the street against him and presumably against journalists who dared write articles against the man. When the 1988 plebiscite is announced, both the “yes” people and the “no” people are invited to knock out 15-mintute commercials justifying their points of view. It falls to ad exec Rene Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) to devise commercials that would appeal to the masses of Chileans. This is the thematic aspect of the movie that should excite potential audiences who love the TV episodes “Mad Men” as well as those who follow political events whether on CNN or MSNBC or Fox News or in their daily newspapers. Saavedra is known for a breezy commercial pushing a soft drink called Free, proving to the public that if you drink the soda, you will be young and full of joy. After trying to highlight Pinochet’s torture policies, Saavedra becomes convinced that his commercials should no longer attack Pinochet but instead be positive with the message that if you vote Pinochet out, you will be happy. (Too bad the film comes out too late to have been used as a model for our own year 2012 presidential election.)
The only concession that Larraín makes to family matters is the portrayal of Saavedra’s love for his young son Simon (Pascal Montero) and, as well, for his estranged wife Veronica (Antonia Zegers). Veronica, in fact, is a leftist who has been beaten by Pinochet’s police for her role in street demonstrations in Santiago.
Step by step we watch the skeptical Saavedra, who is convinced that the referendum is rigged. He watches Pinochet’s “yes” commercials with some envy, particularly one episode in which a man, in bed with a woman, is trying to get her to say “yes” when she at first coyly resists his come-ons. Interestingly Saavedra’s employer Lucho Guzman (Alfred Castro) is on the team for the “yes” forces but continues to work with “no”-man Saavedra to produced soap opera spots.
Politics is show biz, as we well know here in the States, and “No” is a model of this; part satire, part political analysis, and part glorification of the leading man’s acting chops. García Bernal comes across as a man not quite bold enough to be called charismatic but a gentle soul, a family man, an ad-man, and one moderately left-of-center. Had the Republic party in the U.S. chosen a candidate to reflect these traits sincerely and humbly, who knows what would have happened to our current president?
Cinematography is somewhat faded in color to bring across the atmosphere of the eighties, crowd scenes are spot-on, subtitles are bright yellow, and arthouse-style talkiness subordinates to vivid action.
Unrated. 118 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – A-
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B+