No ★★★½

Review also posted on my blog

Directed by - Pablo Larraín
Written by - Pedro Peirano
Based on El Plebiscito by Antonio Skármeta
Starring - Gael García Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Luis Gnecco, Antonia Zegers, Marcial Tagle, Jamie Vadell, Pascal Montero & Néstor Cantillana

A few days ago the people of Chile went to the polls to elect their next President. In true democratic style, the result was a resounding victory for “errrmm, dunno” and things were forced into a second round, to be held next month. For most of us this isn’t unusual; after all, most of Europe goes to the polls to elect a coalition of multiple parties, while in France no-one ever wins the Presidency in the first round. For the people of Chile, however, it was a special and pretty exciting occasion as the election took place just one month after the 25th anniversary of President Pinochet’s democratic removal from office in a national referendum.

No, the latest film from director Pablo Larraín (Tony Manero, Post Mortem), tells the story of the “No” campaign in that referendum and how modern advertising and marketing was used to convince the voters to bring Pinochet’s dictatorial presidency to an end. Starring the ever-brilliant Gael Garcia Bernal (Y Tu Mama También, La Mala Educación) as René Saavedra, the man in charge of the “No” campaign, the film brings Larraín’s loose Pinochet trilogy to a fitting and engaging conclusion with a solid exploration of the regime’s brutality and a more universal look at how political debate in Chile and beyond has been systematically reduced to little more than nice jingles and flashy advertising.

The most remarkable thing about No is just how well it combines stock footage with new material. The use of low definition, U-matic tape allows the old and the new to blend seamlessly, resulting in a film that feels like a documentary but has all the superiority of a solid drama. This, in combination with Sergio Armstrong’s stunning cinematography, grants the film an atmosphere that feels genuine, in which the threat of Pinochet is palpable and the desire for change is all-consuming. It’s impossible not to get caught up in the chaos, the terror and the determination of the “No” campaign so much so that when they actually win, you are swept away, totally and utterly, in the joy and jubilation of the whole thing.

I guess the film’s greatest strength is that it tells a well-worn story in a unique and interesting way. Everyone knows that Pinochet was a tyrant, and the film doesn’t overstretch itself to point that out, but the manner in which he fell from power is a much more obscure little tale. The event itself is fascinating, not least because it came just two years before the fall of the Soviet Union and can be seen as a precursor of the triumph of democracy, and the film tells it in an exciting and engaging way. There are times when it feels a bit simplistic – for example, it all but ignores the ground campaign, instead focussing solely on the marketing and the television campaign – but that’s not a huge problem as the film still more than justifies its two-hour length. It doesn’t patronise its audience by ignoring the brutality and corruption within the system, nor does it make out that voting “No” was the solution to all of Chile’s problems, but it does get to the heart of the situation and give us a brilliant insight into an important part of Chilean history.

Unlike a lot of “political history” cinema, No also works because it feels incredibly contemporary. Thematically speaking, the film is full of messages about the commercialisation and commodification of politics and the election campaign. We’ve all seen it – millions of dollars are thrown into adverts, debates between candidates focus on personality rather than policy and politicians are turning into little more than celebrities who just so happen to run the country. No looks at how the “No” campaign managed to tap into universal ideas – happiness, change, the future – without offering any real policy direction, primarily because the campaign was so divided on how to govern a post-Pinochet Chile. This is a trend that is stronger today than it has ever been, and No does a fine job of getting to the heart of where and how political debate has gone so disastrously wrong.

However, No is a lot more than the simple story of a political campaign. At its heart, No is all about the evolution of its main character – Saavedra – and how his work on the “No” campaign affects his life, his politics and his future. Larraín does a fantastic job of juxtaposing the grand story of democratisation and national freedom with the personal tale of a man who is uncertain about what lies ahead. Bernal is great in the role and he brings a layer of humanity to a film that, in the wrong hands, could have been prescriptive and lecturing. The film is perhaps at its best when the campaign is out of sight, when we’re with Saavedra and his family looking into the future down an uncertain and scary road.

No is a well written, well-acted and brilliantly directed film that confirms Larraín’s place as one of the best directors working in South America today. Whether you’re interested in Chilean politics or not, this is great piece of cinema that tells a fascinating story in a highly engaging way and is definitely worth a watch.