Chile, Judge Erich Asperschlager is coming.
"After this long day, without spilling a single drop of blood, we have overthrown this vicious dictatorship simply by saying, loud and clear, no!"
The 68th annual Academy Awards featured two nominated films based on real events from decades past, each starring a bearded protagonist using the tricks of his trade to fight the political odds. One of those films, Ben Affleck's Argo, won Best Picture. The other, Chilean director Pablo Larraín's No, lost for Best Foreign Language Film. Both movies are indebted to history, and I believe history will judge No more fairly than the Academy did.
Facts of the Case
In 1973, Chilean general Augusto Pinochet led a bloody coup against President Allende, seizing control of the country. While some citizens flourished under his regime, most were scared into silence. After 15 years under the dictatorship, international and internal pressure forced Pinochet to hold a referendum, called a plebiscite, to legitimize his rule. The people were asked to vote either "Yes" to keep Pinochet in power, or "No" to remove him from office. For a month leading up to the election, each side was given 15 minutes of daily TV time to argue their case.
Advertising executive René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal, The Science of Sleep) is approached by opposition leader José Urritia (Luis Gnecco, Prófugos) with an offer to run their ad campaign, which he accepts despite pressure from his sympathizer boss (Alfredo Castro, Tony Manero) on one side and his activist ex-wife (Antonia Zegers, Post Mortem) on the other. Saavedra is instrumental in crafting a "No" campaign that emphasizes the positive while the "Yes" campaign focuses on the negative. When it becomes apparent that the "No" campaign is gaining popularity, the powers that be threaten Saavedra, his team, and his son Simón (Pascal Montero, Socias).
The similarities between No and Ben Affleck's award-winning Argo are mostly superficial, but it's worth comparing them as an example of the way foreign films are marginalized by Hollywood. (It could just as easily fuel a debate about the relevance of the Oscars, but that's another discussion.) No garnered most of its well-deserved praise at Cannes and other film festivals, and it only stands to gain with its home video release. It is everything that most big studio movies aren't—powerful, vital, and doesn't feel the need to over-explain plot details or character motivations. It tells a thrilling tale without added melodrama or contrived twists. There's more than enough in the real story of the brave Chileans who risked reprisal to overthrow a dictator to make a compelling film. No isn't a documentary but it has a vérité feel.
That authenticity is driven in large part by an attention to detail. No goes above and beyond period-accurate clothing, hairstyles, and set dressing. Larraín made the bold choice to shoot the movie not on 35mm film or HD video, but on Sony U-Matic magnetic tape, the same early VHS format used by Chilean news media in the late '80s. The visual fidelity is somewhere below your average America's Funniest Home Video. I imagine the style will be a sticking point for some viewers, but it's one of the best things about the movie. Not only does the ancient videotape give No an authentic look, it also allows Larraín to incorporate archival footage from the actual campaign—including full-length TV ads and video of Pinochet with political leaders like President Carter and the Pope.
It's difficult for Americans to understand just how important the 1988 referendum was to Chile and its people. No might beg comparison to Argo, but as a document of a major turning point in a country's history it has more in common with Spielberg's Lincoln. Like in that film, No dedicates a great deal of screentime to people with different political opinions arguing passionately for their positions. The referendum choice might be as simple as picking Yes or No, but even among the opposition there is a wide spectrum of ideas the future of Chile and the "No" campaign itself. To people like Saavedra's estranged wife, taking any part in the election is tantamount to legitimizing Pinochet. Others have a problem with using advertising tricks like jingles and the distinctive "No" rainbow logo to woo voters. Saavedra bets that the voting populace will be more receptive to humor and optimism than the dour litany of atrocities many within the opposition want to be the centerpiece of the campaign. The "No" side's optimistic message stands in stark contrast with the overwhelming negativity in modern political campaigns, which seem to have learned more from Pinochet than the opposition that defeated him.
We experience the fear and optimism of the plebiscite through the fictional René Saavedra, played by Gael García Bernal. He embodies the conflicted feelings that made the referendum as close as it was. When we meet Saavedra, he is earning a comfortable living as a late '80s South American Don Draper. He is sympathetic to the opposition because of his political past, but he has plenty to lose. He is never as afraid as when secret police threaten his son. He is no less afraid, though, by the future Simón will inherit if Pinochet stays in power. A lesser Hollywood film would make those fears explicit, cramming in sappy scenes between father and precocious son. Bernal doesn't need to tell us how much he loves his child. We see it in his actions, in the heartbreak and determination on Saavedra's face when he is forced to leave his son with his estranged wife after a break-in at his home. The character may be a construct, but Bernal's raw performance brings him to life.
Some viewers may find it difficult to get past No's low-fi visuals. It certainly makes it tough to score the Blu-ray's 1.40:1 1080p presentation. The picture is blurry, colors are inconsistent, and everything dissolves into white at any hint of direct sunlight. There's no good reason to go with hi-def over standard DVD, but don't let any of that deter you. No is a striking film. While other movies trample each other to reach the sharpest, cleanest heights of digital fidelity, Larraín and cinematographer Sergio Armstrong chose the perfect format to bring the story to life, even though it meant cutting its commercial viability. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track isn't as period-accurate but it is impressive, pushing crowd noise and surround effects to the rear speakers. In some places, background voices would be lost if not for the subtitles, but it's a strong overall mix.
No comes to Blu-ray with just two bonus features, but they're both worthwhile:
• Audio Commentary with Gael García Bernal and Pablo Larraín: The actor and director have a warm and engaging conversation (in English, thankfully) about the filmmaking process, the cultural resonance of the story, and its themes, sprinkling in behind-the-scenes tidbits about locations and actors with connections to the '88 referendum. Unfortunately, they are too busy talking about too-real altercations between rock-throwing extras and the actors playing police in the riot scene to reveal whether the best shot in the movie—a brief moment where a police hose creates a rainbow in the air—was a happy accident or inspired cinematography.
• No Q&A with Gael García Bernal (12:47): Moderated by Diana Sanchez at the Toronto International Film Festival, García answers questions about the film's social relevance, its reception in Chile, and the history of the Pinochet referendum. It would have been nice to get the entire session, but it's a good watch.
Don't let the subtitles or sub-VHS visuals keeps you from experiencing No. It is more effective and has more to say than any of the recent Hollywood historical dramas it brings to mind. The story of how Chile used the power of democracy to throw out a cruel dictatorship is as inspiring in 2013 as it was in 1988. Every election cycle is a sad reminder that Americans, like many other countries, take voting for granted. No argues that casting a ballot is more than civic duty. It is an act of bravery with the power to change the world.
YES! An astounding film.
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